The First Actresses

From Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons
Gill Perry with Joseph Roach and Shearer West

Portraits of the earliest actresses and what they convey about a once-disreputable profession


Women first appeared on the legitimate public stage in England following the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, which heralded a major change in British theatre. This fascinating book explores the lives and achievements of these first actresses through studies of some of their most vivid portraits. Written to accompany the National Portrait Gallery's exhibition The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons, it examines the vibrant relationship between art and theatre in England in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the remarkable visibility of some of its best-known stars. It considers how actresses such as Nell Gwyn, Kitty Clive, Mary Robinson, Dorothy Jordan, Giovanna Baccelli and Sarah Siddons achieved fame and notoriety, and explores the important role played by painted portraits, mass reproduced prints and graphic satire.

In a series of four essays, this book reassesses the often controversial relationship between art, gender and the theatre, and the traditional association between the actress and the prostitute. The authors show how women performers in drama, as well as music and dance, were key figures within a spectacular celebrity culture that emerged during the eighteenth century. They explore the ways in which actresses and critics used portraiture to enhance their reputations and professional status, and provide a lively analysis of the 'feminine face' of eighteenth-century celebrity culture, suggesting interesting parallels with modern-day 'star systems'.

Illustrated with reproductions of compelling, large-scale works combined with smaller, more intimate portraits, this book provides a vivid spectacle of eighteenth-century femininity, fashion and theatricality.

Front: Mary Robinson – Perdita by John Hoppner, 1782
Back (clockwise from top left):
Nell Gwyn by Simon Verelst, c.1680
Lavinia Fenton, possibly by George Knapton, c.1739
Frances Abington as Miss Prue in Love for Love
by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1771
Dorothy Jordan by John Russell, 1801

Gill Perry is Professor of Art History at the Open University. 

Joseph Roach is Sterling Professor of Theater and English at Yale University. 

Shearer West is Professor of Art History, Birmingham University.

Praise / Awards

  • "An attractive, lively book that should appeal both to scholars and a wider public.  The essays are written in clear, vigorous prose, and cover a range of ideas that have real currency. Who isn't bombarded by celebrity these days, and who would dispute that what counts as 'news' is often indistinguishable from gossip about unusually interesting people?"
    —Felicity Nussbaum, University of California, Los Angeles

  • "An intensive intermingling of arguments about eighteenth-century theatrical representation, biographical writing, portraiture, gender, celebrity, and fashion that will be of great interest both to art collectors and to scholars in any number of fields including Art History, Music History, Theater History, Eighteenth-Century Studies, and Cultural and Visual Studies."
    —Lisa A. Freeman, University of Illinois, Chicago

  • "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 Costume Society

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Product Details

  • 8.375 x 11.25.
  • 160pp.
  • 120 color and B&W illustrations.
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Sales Restrictions

Our edition is available in Canada, United States


  • Hardcover
  • 2011
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-11827-4

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  • $59.95 U.S.



  • actress, eighteenth century, portrait, celebrity culture, Johann Zoffany, Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, Thomas Lawrence, National Portrait Gallery