Georgiana the witch (and other eighteenth-century actresses)
Here's how visitors to the National Portrait Gallery can see the witches from Macbeth this autumn: as portrayed in chalk and gouache by Daniel Gardner in 1775, and "played" by a trio of friends, the Duchess of Devonshire (or just "Georgiana" to readers of Amanda Foreman's biography), Viscountess Melbourne and the sculptor Anne Seymour Damer.
The online catalogue notes that there may be political allegory lurking here – although it's tempting to think that the claim that if there's no direct parallel for the work's "composition" elsewhere in Gardner's oeuvre, there is at least a male counterpart – three political animals caught in the middle of their plotting – by Gardner elsewhere in the NPG itself. All they need is a cauldron.
"Georgiana the witch" is one of two significant novelties in an exhibition that's just opened at the NPG, The First Actresses . . .
The other one is a century older, by Simon Verelst, and depicts Nell Gwyn in a state of undress (it's reproduced in this week's TLS).
There are some familiar images among the other fifty, including a copy of Sir Joshua Reynolds's "Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse". Note the face to Siddons's left, based on the artist himself:
(The much-reworked original is in California, where it sits majestically, and in good artistic company at the Huntington Art Gallery; is it wrong to prefer this one, not in the exhibition but elsewhere in the gallery?)
Perhaps most interesting from a theatrical point of view are the scenes inspired by theatrical productions of the eighteenth century, which include a Hamlet of 1777 knocking over his chair when he sees the ghost of his father for a second time – a decades-old, if not century-old, piece of business.
There's also Thomas Gainsborough's portrait of the dancer Giovanna Bacelli, the comic actor Henry Angelo in drag, "Frances Abington as Miss Prue" (another classic piece of work by Reynolds, but fading fast), a few satirical swipes at all this vanity and self-promotion courtesy of James Gillray, and the more famous one of Nell Gwyn (by Verelst again), in which she almost succeeds in staying in her clothes. Almost but not quite. . . .