Conference: The First Actresses – Gender, Representation and Performance

11 November 2011, The National Portrait Gallery, London 10.00am-8.00pm

This one-day conference is organised by the National Portrait Gallery in partnership with The Open University to accompany the exhibition The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons (20 October 2011-8 January 2012 – read a review of the exhibition here).The event, which promises to be of interest to British Art Researchers working in a variety of areas from portraiture to gender studies, brings together the research skills of an international group of academics working in the different disciplines of theatre and performance studies, literature, music and art history and provides a forum in which to address the role of visual and material culture in the formation, promotion and reception of women performers in this period. With its emphasis on the visual culture of the eighteenth-century actress, we hope that the conference will generate stimulating discussions around the exhibition and its themes. There has already been a great deal of publicity around the exhibition, relating to the re-discovery of a Nell Gwyn portrait which hasn’t been seen for 50 years – you can listen to last night’s episode of BBC Radio 4’s Front Row, in which Mark Lawson interviews actresses Romola Gari and Thandie Newton here.

The First Actresses will explore the vibrant yet controversial relationship between art, gender and the theatre in eighteenth-century England. It will chart the emergence of the profession of actress after 1660 by examining the public lives, reputations and representations of female performers during the long eighteenth century. The exhibition will explore the ways in which ambitious portraits and more intimate works, and a growing market for prints and mass-produced objects, were central to the eighteenth-century struggle to professionalize and expand the theatre and develop its close relationship with fine art. The show will argue that the remarkable visibility of portraits of women players, sometimes replete with symbolic and allegorical functions, was crucial to this process. Nevertheless, the public spectacle of these women on display (on stage and in paint) provoked passionate debates on moral and sexual decorum. Commissioned portraits by leading artists, satirical prints and commemorative objects fed these concerns and contributed to the growth of a lively celebrity culture, which has been seen to anticipate the modern ‘star system’. The exhibition will explore some of the aesthetic, gender and class questions which are raised by portraits of actresses, including performers such as Peg Woffington, Sarah Siddons, Dorothy Jordan, Frances Abington, Elizabeth Linley and Giovanna Baccelli.

The exhibition explores the ways in which visual images and written biographies combined to create popular myths, ambiguous histories and sexual scandals. It explores how theatrical portraits can provide traces, fragments and reconstructions of lives and performances. Given its chronological range, it also explores historical shifts in the structure and culture of the theatre, the evolution and popularity of particular roles for women, their creative ambitions and their representations through visual imagery. This is also one of the first exhibitions to explore the roles of music and dance in the repertoire of female performers, considering the close relationship between these genres in eighteenth century theatre and their visual representation.

Combining some well-known paintings and little-known works by artists such as Johann Zoffany, Francis Hayman, William Hogarth, Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, John Hoppner, Samuel de Wilde and Thomas Lawrence such as , this exhibition will also examine the ways in which actresses and artists used portraiture to enhance their reputations and increase their popularity and professional status.

Taking the exhibition as its starting point, the conference will develop the following research themes through individual papers, Q&As and a roundtable:

  • What was the role of visual representation in the construction of eighteenth-century celebrity culture and ‘star actresses’?
  • How did actress portraits contribute to ideas of ‘public intimacy’ and imagined offstage personalities?
  • How did the representation of female roles contribute to eighteenth-century definitions of femininity in the public sphere, and how did actresses use visual imagery to gain cultural authority and earning power?
  • What was the relationship between the performance culture of the patent theatres and so-called ‘amateur theatricals’, and how did these associations inform perceptions and representations of women players?
  • How did the British taste for Eastern ‘otherness’ and ‘oriental’ plays in the Georgian theatre affect perceptions of women players, their roles and representations?
  • How was the eighteenth-century rage for musical theatre (such as operettas, pantomimes, musical comedies) represented through visual representation?
  • How were political and cultural issues and concerns with British national identity mediated through women’s roles and their visual representations?
  • How did the close relationship between the fine, applied and dramatic arts inform contemporary ideas of spectacle, performance and ‘character’?

Conference Timetable and List of Confirmed Speakers

(While we do not expect any significant changes in speakers, the running order may be amended and titles of individual papers confirmed.)

  • 10:00-10:30: Registration
  • 10:30-10:40: Chairs’ Welcome, Dr Lucy Peltz, 18th Century Curator, National Portrait Gallery and Professor Gill Perry, Professor in the History of Art, The Open University

Session 1: Portraiture and the Construction of Celebrity

Chair: Professor Gill Perry

  • 10:40-11:15: Nell Gwyn and Covent Garden  Goddesses: Celebrity, Femininity and ‘It effects’, Professor Joseph Roach, Sterling Professor of Theater, Yale University
  • 11:15-11:50: Listening to Portraits: Music, Representation and the Eighteenth-Century Singer, Dr Berta Joncus, Senior Lecturer in Music, Goldsmith’s College, University of London
  • 11:50-12:35: ‘“The Picture was my Stage”: The Theatre of the Conversation Piece’, Dr Kate Retford, Lecturer in Eighteenth and early Nineteenth-Century History of Art, Birkbeck College, University of London
  • 12:35-12:45: Additional questions
  • 12:45-2:00:Lunch and free view of the exhibition for delegates

Session 2: Gender, “Otherness” and Women’s Parts

Chair: Shearer West, Head of the Humanities Division, University of Oxford

  • 2:00-2:35: The Forgotten Tragic Muse: Mary Anne Yates and Oriental Drama, Professor Felicity Nussbaum, Distinguished Professor of English at the University of California in Los Angeles
  • 2:35-3:10: Private Theatricals, Gender and Class (exact title to be confirmed), Professor Judith Hawley, Department of English, Royal Holloway College, London
  • 3:10-3:45: Johann Zoffany, Women Players and Eighteenth Century Theatre, Dr Martin Postle, Assistant Director, The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art
  • 3:45-4:20: ‘Enter A Gentleman: a one-act play about Aphra Behn.’ Dr Elizabeth Kuti, Playwright and Lecturer in Drama, University of Essex
  • 4:20-5:00: Tea
  • 5:00-5:45: Round table discussion, chaired by Dr Lucy Peltz and Professor Gill Perry
  • 6:00-8:00: Free view of the exhibition for delegates
  • 6:30-8:00: Wine reception
  • 8.00: Speaker’s dinner

Please note that the accompanying exhibition publication, The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons (RRP £30, hardback), by Gill Perry, with essays by Joseph Roach and Shearer West, will be available to delegates on the day of the conference for the special discount price of £20. For more information, please see the publication page.

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