What a brilliant idea this exhibition is. Not necessarily for the standard of art it contains, because the handful of wonderful Gainsboroughs, Gillrays and Hogarths contrast with many more lacklustre paintings by artists whose obscurity is clearly well deserved. But it’s a fascinating examination of attitudes to gender and self-presentation in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century London, and if that sounds worryingly like a thesis title, fret not, for this is an exhibition overflowing with bosoms.
Initially, a bare chest was a useful signifier of an actress’s presumed morals: we meet Eleanor ‘Nell’ Gwyn’s left nipple simultaneously with her shrewd, narrowed eyes. In Simon Verelst’s second portrait of her, she is topless, hair loose. It has taken a mere couple of steps for us to see what King Charles II was hoping to reserve for himself. No wonder these actresses made red-blooded men anxious.
The show deals explicitly with that anxiety. There’s a roomful of cross-dressers, of both sexes (within living memory, all roles would have been played by men), and another in which the actresses who married playwright Richard Sheridan and actor David Garrick are shown sedately beside their husbands. Both these men of the theatre forced their wives to retire – which, given the pictures of actresses in breeches or depicted as public carriages, available for anyone to enter, is not that surprising. Still, in Joshua Reynolds’s sumptuous picture of the couple, David reads aloud but Mrs Garrick looks bored beyond words.
By Thomas Lawrence’s time, a century after Gwyn, actresses could be respectable: Sarah Siddons even instructed King George III’s children. Lawrence makes her solemn and statuesque: no breasts displayed here. But the questions raised when women took to the stage are still in vogue. Should beauty, that source of masculine weakness, be celebrated for its power? Should women court the male gaze? And if women are encouraged to act, how are men ever to escape deception?