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National Portrait Gallery Acquires Rare Picture of Society Beauties as Macbeth's Witches
The Three Witches from Shakespeares Macbethby Daniel Gardner, 1775. ©National Portrait Gallery, London.

LONDON.- As it launches a major exhibition of actress portraits, the National Portrait Gallery has announced the acquisition of a large and rarely seen picture of three of eighteenth-century society’s most glamorous and notorious women – as the three witches from Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne – the most famous political hostesses and society beauties of their day – are shown gathered around the witches’ cauldron alongside their friend, the sculptor Anne Seymour Damer.

The portrait will be seen by museum visitors for the first time at the National Portrait Gallery’s autumn exhibition The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons, where it will be included in a section devoted to amateur dramatics. It was acquired through the Government’s Acceptance in Lieu scheme having been allocated to the Gallery from a private collection in lieu of inheritance tax.

This unusual group portrait of 1775 in pastel by artist Daniel Gardner (1750-1805) shows three intimate friends who enjoyed attending private theatricals and shared a common passion for Whig politics and the arts. Gardner’s choice of the Cauldron scene from Macbeth can be related to their shared and shadowy political machinations as leading members of the Devonshire House circle. The daughter of the First Earl Spencer, Georgiana’s marriage to the fifth Duke of Devonshire placed her at the apex of Whig Society. She held famously libertine parties at Devonshire house in London, and recently was the subject of Amanda Foreman’s hugely successful book and the subsequent film The Duchess with Keira Knightley.

Viscountess Melbourne was married to Sir Penniston Lamb MP and was an ‘enthusiastic manager of her husband’s political interests’. While she had been friends with Damer, the foremost female sculptor of her day, since the early 1770s, her friendship with Georgiana was fairly recent. This pastel portrait may in part be related to Melbourne’s desire to publicise this new friendship. Melbourne is thought to have commissioned the work that has descended in her family.

The newly-acquired work is a significant addition to the National Portrait Gallery’s eighteenth-century collections. While each of the three sitters was influential, due to her lasting interest to biographers, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire remains one of the greatest celebrities of her day and this is the first portrait the Gallery has acquired of her as an adult. It is also the first portrait it has acquired of Lady Melbourne.

While there is no evidence of its being exhibited at the time, contemporaries clearly knew of its existence. It is mentioned in Lady Mary Coke’s journal, where she wrote in 1775 of a drawing of ‘the Duchess of Devonshire, Lady Melburn, and Mrs Damer all being drawn in one picture in the Characters of the three Witches in Macbeth … They have chosen that Scene where they compose their Cauldron, but instead of “finger of Birth-strangled babe, etc” their Cauldron is composed of roses and carnations and I daresay they think their charmes more irresistible than all the magick of the Witches.’.

Dr Lucy Peltz, Curator of 18th Century Portraits, National Portrait Gallery, London, says: ‘This unusual group portrait depicts three of the most politically influential and socially notorious women of the period. I am delighted that the Acceptance in Lieu panel has allocated it to the National Portrait Gallery where it helps to present a more representative view of female achievement in the eighteenth century.’

The portrait will be one of 53 in an exhibition that will show the remarkable popularity of actress-portraits. The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons will be the first exhibition to explore the relationship of art and theatre in eighteenth-century England through portraits of its leading female performers. It will bring together works by artists such as Reynolds, Gainsborough, Hoppner, Lawrence, Zoffany and Gillray. Actresses featured include Nell Gwyn, Kitty Clive, Hester Booth, Lavinia Fenton, Susannah Cibber, Sarah Siddons, Mary Robinson, Dorothy Jordan, Elizabeth Farren and Elizabeth Linley.

Highlights include a little known version of Reynolds’s famous portrait of Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse, Hogarth’s The Beggar’s Opera, Gainsborough’s portraits of Giovanna Baccelli and Elizabeth Linley. Important loans include works from the Garrick Club Library, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Gallery of Art, Washington, The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, Tate Britain, the V&A, as well as Petworth, Kenwood and Longleat Houses.

Starting with the emergence of the actress’s profession from the late seventeenth century, The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons will show how women performers, in drama as well as music and dance, were key figures within a spectacular celebrity culture. Fuelled by gossipy theatre and art reviews, satirical prints and the growing taste for biography, eighteenth-century society engaged in heated argument about women’s appearance and sexual decorum on stage and revelled in the traditional association between actress and prostitute, or ‘whores and divines’. The exhibition will also reveal the many ways in which women performers stimulated artistic innovation and creativity and provoked intellectual debate.

The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons is curated by Professor Gill Perry, supported by Dr Lucy Peltz. Professor Gill Perry is Professor of Art History and Head of External Collaborations at the Open University. She is the author of Spectacular Flirtations (shortlisted for the 2008 Theatre Book Prize) that explores issues of gender, spectatorship and femininity in eighteenth-century theatrical portraits.

Dr Lucy Peltz is the National Portrait Gallery’s Curator of 18th Century Portraits, and co-curator of the Gallery’s recent exhibitions Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power and Brilliance and Brilliant Women: 18th Century Bluestockings.

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