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07/12/2011 18:17 GMT | Updated 11/02/2012 05:12 GMT

The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons Review

Indeed there is no shying away from the parallels in this exhibition with so much modern entertainment. Celebrity worship is another human constant; and with celebrity, as any Hugh Grant or Steve Coogan knows, comes sex, obsession and the baying British press.

When it comes to history we have an understandable tendency to be seduced by the silk finery of luxurious clothing, pleasant country mansions and outdated social conventions. Just think of Downton Abbey where, let's be honest, part of the appeal was in the superficial: posh accents, butlers and exquisite table manners, all set beneath big events. It's like looking into another world. And there in lies part of the appeal.

But as the National Portrait Gallery hints at, we are simply looking at a mirror when we peer through the gloom of history. People are beneath their clothes and accents, all more or less the same with the same habits, lusts, obsessions, and tempers. When it comes to culture, then, we shouldn't despair too much at things like the X Factor or Strictly Come Dancing. The wild excitement and participation of the audience; the purposeful whipping up of the public and press attention: this is the norm rather than some modern aberration. If anything the hushed audience, clapping politely at the end of each movement, is the irregularity. The Gallery should be commended for raising these familiar ideas in historical context.

James Boswell, Samuel Johnson's biographer and a great literary mind and gentleman, gives us a taste of this idea in the 18th century when he visited Drury Lane Theatre. A lull in the proceedings allowed the Scot to entertain the audience 'by imitating the lowing of a cow...I was so successful in this boyish frolic that the universal cry of the galleries was "Encore the cow! Encore the cow!' Theatres were messy Hogarthian images of 18th century England: haughty high culture mixed with low debauchery; a fine mess of claret and horse manure; Handel and back street harlots.

Then as now, there were critics, who aggressively condemned the nonsense and depravity served up before them. A less jovial Scot, James Burgh, used the occasion of the Jacobite rebellion in 1745 to rant against the immorality of the age. Burgh didn't know where to begin, 'whether [it be]...the Lewdness or Impiety of most of the Plays themselves, or the infamous Characters of the Actors and Actresses, or the scandalous Farces they commonly tag the gravest plays with...'

Indeed there is no shying away from the parallels in this exhibition with so much modern entertainment. Celebrity worship is another human constant; and with celebrity, as any Hugh Grant or Steve Coogan knows, comes sex, obsession and the baying British press. It was rare, in the case of the renowned actress, Sarah Siddon, to fully overcome the usual media speculation surrounding her private life. More often than not actresses were simply assumed to be promiscuous libertines (and many of them were) and struggled to be taken seriously.

Despite this, the actress often carried with her the aura of the sublime (often simultaneously with the label of slut). Even Samuel Pepys seemed to sway uneasily between disgust and adoration when confronted with the white powdered curves of the gorgeous Nell Gwyn. Stumbling backstage with an actress friend he was led up "into the tiring rooms and to the women's shift where Gwyn was dressing herself and was all unready and is very pretty, prettier than I thought...But Lord! To see how they both were painted would make a man mad and did make me loath them; and what base company of men come among them and how lewdly they talk."

A few of the more intimate portraits - Mary Robinson by John Hoppner and Frances Abington by Reynolds - go beyond mere wit or sensual attraction, however. They attempt to capture that perfect moment - vital to the performer - when time seems to stop and the actress transcends reality. It's a fluid and fleeting moment and often tragic when one considers the effects of time on reputations and appearances. There is consequently nothing of the masculine solidity in the images of Sarah Siddon by Reynolds or Elizabeth Ann Sheridan by Gainsborough.

These feel like familiar ideas, considering the mainstream nature of celebrity worship and Andy Warhol. Yet at the time it was a novel and new idea when applied to the performer. Indeed, when the curtain fell, as the philosopher Adam Smith noted, the actresses value - their work - "perishes in the very instant of its production." Thankfully, a few of them still have something to show for it.

The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons runs at the National Portrait Gallery until 8 January 2012.