Scandalous Women in London: The First Actresses

Since I still had a few vacation days left this year, I decided to hop a plane to London for a few days, to see some friends but also to see 2 exhibits that I didn't want to miss.  The first one was the Enchanted Princesses exhibit at Kensington Palace, the 2nd was The First Actresses exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery on Charing Cross Road.  The National Portrait Gallery is hands down my favorite museum in London, and The First Actresses exhibit didn't disappoint.  It was a tad expensive, 11 pounds, and the exhibition wasn't huge, but as a former actress, I found it fascinating to see the portraits of women I had only read about in theatre history.  There were many women whose portraits I had never seen before including Moll Davis, the other actress who had the privilege of sharing Charles II's bed for a brief time.

From the web-site:  The First Actresses presents a vivid spectacle of femininity, fashion and theatricality in seventeenth and eighteenth-century Britain. Taking centre stage are the intriguing and notorious female performers of the period whose lives outside of the theatre ranged from royal mistresses to admired writers and businesswomen. The exhibition reveals the many ways in which these early celebrities used portraiture to enhance their reputations, deflect scandal and create their professional identities.

Intriguing no?  The exhibition mentions the fact that, in the beginning, actress and prostitute were seen as synonymous.  Indeed, many of the early actresses had aristocratic protectors, Elizabeth Barry & The Earl of Rochester, Nell Gwyn & Charles II, Dorothy Jordan & The Duke of Clarence.  Also many actresses including Elizabeth Farren, ending up marrying their lovers, albeit after their wives had died and the heirs had already been secured.  Elizabeth Farren married the Earl of Derby, and Lavinia Fenton, the Duke of Bolton. 

Looking at the portraits, one can see the rise of celebrity culture.  Just as today, photographers like Annie Leibovitz are known for their celebrity portraits, artists like Reynolds, Gainsborough and Romney painted all the leading actresses of the day.  And then there was the celebrity memoir, many of the leading actresses of the day wrote books about their lives which were eaten up by the public.

This lovely actress is Dorothy Jordon (1761-1816), one of the foremost comic actresses in London in the 18th century.  Born in Ireland, Dorothy was also the mistress of the Duke of Clarence (the future King William IV), and the mother of his 10 illegitmate children, the Fitz-Clarences.  For 20 years, she was not only his mistress but she also supported him and their children, since his civil list allowance did not cover his extravagant lifestyle.  After the death of Princess Charlotte, the daughter of the Prince Regent, died in childbirth, the Duke dumped Dorothy and married a German princess in order to secure the line of succession.  He and Queen Adelaide had no children who survived, paving the way for Queen Victoria.  When Dorothy went back on the stage to support herself, after he left, he took her children away.  What a prince!

This is Lavinia Fenton (1708-1760) who played Polly Peachum in the first ever performance of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera.  Lavinia became the mistress of the Duke of Bolton, and then married him after his wife's death.  Not bad eh?

This beauty is Mary Robinson (1757-1800), also known as Perdita after the role that she played when she met the Prince of Wales (future George IV).  She was briefly his mistress, but the relationship was fleeting.  Mary eventually gave up acting to write poetry and plays.  Mary had a long affair with Banastre Tarleton who didn't really treat her well. Unfortunately she is not as well known as she should be.  ALL FOR LOVE by Amanda Elyot is a historical fiction novel about Mary Robinson.

This is one of 2 portraits of Nell Gwyn (1650-1687) that are in the exhibition.  The 2nd portrait was just recently attributed to her.  I admit that I have a fondness in my heart for Nell Gwyn.  Apart from his Queen, Catherine of Braganza, and his sister Minette, I think Nell is the only mistress who truly loved the King for himself and not for what he could do for.  She never demanded a fancy house or jewels for herself, the only thing that she demanded was that their children be cared for, and given the same titles that his other bastards were given.

Ah Sarah Siddons (1755-1831), the Meryl Streep of the late 18th and early 19th century.  There are several portraits of Sarah in the exhibition.  She came from a theatrical family, her parents were actors, and her siblings also went on the stage, the most well known being her brother John Philip Kemble.  Mrs. Siddons was not a success when she made her debut in London as Portia in Merchant of Venice and a few other roles. Whether it was nerves or lack of experience, she was soon sent packing.  In fact, she spent several years in the provinces after her disasterous debut, honing her craft until she finally came back in triumph several years later.  While Dorothy Jordon,Peg Woffington and Frances Abington were known for their comedic roles, Sarah was a tragedienne bar none.  One of her most famous roles was that of Lady Macbeth.

There were several other actresses included in the exhibit including women who were known more for operatic roles than acting, although most actresses of the period were expected to be able to sing a little as well as dance.  They also had to provide their own costumes!  One of the actresses included in the exhibit is Elizabeth Inchbald who gave up the stage to write plays.  She was well acquainted with William Godwin, and was not happy when he hooked up with Mary Wollstonecraft and then married her.  The exhibit explores the "breeches" roles that were so popular in the 17th & 18th century.  These roles allowed women the freedom to go on stage dressed like men, but it also caused a stink because they weren't covered up!

I had no idea how many actresses at that time extended their careers by picking up the pen.  I wish some enterprising theatre producer would devote a season to reviving one of Mary Robinson or Elizabeth Inchbald's plays, even if it was just in the staged reading format.

While I was at the museum, I also made a pilgrimage to see Mary Wollstonecraft and Emma Hamilton's portraits in the museum.  One of the displays concerned Princess Charlotte of Wales and the future Queen Victoria.  While looking at the portraits of Queen Victoria, I was struck by how much Prince Andrew's daughter Princess Beatrice looks like her.

Here's a portrait of a young Queen Victoria

And here's Princess Beatrice.  They look like twins right?

Yes, I know that Princess Beatrice is a direct descendent of Queen Victoria, but none of the Queen's children or grandchildren have quite the same uncanny resemblance. I spent a good deal of time in the Victorian and Edwardian galleries looking at the faces.  My favorite room is the one that has the notorious rivals William Gladstone & Benjamin Disraeli hung right next to each other!

Afterwards, I went to the National Cafe for the Lady Hamilton tea which included a plum Bellini.  Unfortunately they served the tea, not using loose tea, but with a tea bag! Considering the tea cost me a whopping 21 pounds, I thought it a bit much.  On a lighter note, the scone with clotted cream was awesome!


Shay said…
"Mary had a long affair with Banastre Tarleton who didn't really treat her well."

Did he treat anyone well?
Rachel said…
I went to this exhibition too, also thought it was brilliant (if a tad expensive)
No, I don't think Tarleton treated anyone well! Jason Isaacs played a fictional version of Tarleton in the Patriot. I remember him as being sexy but sinister.
Margaret Porter said…
The First Actresses exhibition was orginally intended to be more comprehensive, according to the art curator of an institution that provided several of the portraits. It was whittled down and down in scope. I'm sorry they didn't keep to the original vision. Also, the information provided was very sparse--hardly any info on the relationships among the women, i.e. Elizabeth Inchbald & Siddons, who performed together in the provinces, and Inchbald & Mary "Becky" Wells.

The Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, near Elizabeth Inchbald's home village, did an Inchbald season a few years ago and mounts one of her plays once every year or so.

There are occasional revivals of 18th century plays by women. Several seasons back, Bristol's Old Vic enjoyed a huge success with Fanny Burney's The Busy Day, which transferred to the West End.

I was disappointed with the Enchanted Princesses experience at Kensington Palace. What did you think of it?
Margaret, I expected so much more from the Enchanted Princesses experience. I wasn't sure whether it was designed for adults or children. It wasn't very user friendly for either. Although I did like some of the installations, particularly the room in the beginning devoted to Queen Mary II.

I too wish that the original vision for the First Actresses had been realized. You are right that none of the relationships between the actresses was emphasized, apart from a feud that Peg Woffington had with one of them.

I saw the production a few years ago of the Burney play A Very Busy Day and enjoyed it. Thanks for letting me know about the Theatre Royal in Bury St. Edmunds. It would have been nice if the museum had done some staged readings of Mary Robinson & Elizabeth Inchbald's work.
anieb said…
This is nice bolg thaks for sharing it

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