Book Review “The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons”

Gill Perry, Joseph Roach and Shearer West  (London: National Portrait Gallery Publications, 2011). 160 pp. 99 illus. £30. ISBN 978- 185514-411-8.

This handsomely produced book accompanies the exhibition, The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons (held at the National Portrait Gallery, London, 20 October 2011 - 8 January 2012). It showcases the celebrated actresses of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England and the artists who played a significant role in promoting their celebrity. In exploring the interaction of the theatre and art, lucid texts show how actresses used portraiture in many ways, such as to increase their popularity and to enhance their reputation and status.

Costume was an important vehicle for the expression of their concerns with artists precisely depicting their dress and accessories, promoting the notion of the actress as a fashion icon. There are so many wonderful examples. A particularly stunning one is the portrait of Lavinia Fenton (who later became Duchess of Bolton), possibly painted by George Knapton, dated about 1739. She wears a sumptuous white and pink silk robe with an exquisitely laced and embroidered bodice. As the book points out, ‘a portrait image that vividly declared their fashionable affluence could signify social and professional achievement’. Lavinia Fenton also wears a very fashionable accessory, a beautifully-pleated white silk cap decorated with flowers which she perched, most dashingly, on one side of her head. Such a cap was seen in the period as a symbol of the ‘glamour’ of celebrity culture. Many productions saw the better-established actresses appearing in contemporary dress. William Hogarth’s scene from The Beggar’s Opera, dated 1728-1728, shows Lavinia Fenton in another such robe and cap, affirming her status as a fashion icon.

The book and the exhibition are a feast for the dress historian, featuring a range of actress-portraits, paintings of actresses in their famous roles, as well as some delightful caricatures of the actresses and their fashions. The book is an invaluable complement to the exhibition for it has a wealth of good-quality illustrations, some in close-up, of paintings and prints absent from the exhibition that help to construct a rounded interpretation of the theme and highlight the luxuriousness of the fabrics, the embroidery, the lace, and the accessories for which this period is renowned. It also has the scholarly apparatus of documentary material, bibliography and index. The whole book is exceptionally well written and presented, a credit to the authors and to the staff of National Portrait Gallery Publications involved in the process from planning to production.



  • Mary Robinson as Perdita by John Hoppner, 1782 Chawton House Library, Hampshire
  • An Actress at Her Toilet or Miss Brazen just Breecht. After John Collett, 1779 © The Trustees of the British Museum