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Dec 2011 Journal

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Art notes (review)

Three centuries after her celebrated love affair with Charles II, Nell Gwyn’s name still flourishes on pubs, street names and upmarket apartments. Paintings of Nell, the first It Girl and one of the13 mistresses of Charles II, are among 53 paintings in The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons at the National Portrait Gallery (to 8 January 2012). These superstars of their day, portrayed by artists like Gainsborough, Gillray, Hogarth and Reynolds, were often educated women who became national tragediennes - only to renounce their careers in favour of marriage to wealthy aristocrats. Whether wife or mistress, ageing - like today - was not an option for those who successfully trod the boards.

Simon Verreist’s contrasting portraits of Nell Gwyn are both erotic: one is suggestive, the other provocative. Gainsborough portrays the actress Giovanna Baccelli in a swirling gown and hat against rough clouds. One of the most endearing is Sir Joshua Reynolds’s portrait of a reflective, child-like Frances Abingdon as Prue in Love for Love, thumb in mouth. Then you have Hogarth’s cartoon of strolling actors dressing in a bar, or James Gillray’s Dilettanti Theatricals. Another striking example is John Hoppner’s portrait of the actress, poet and writer Mary Robinson as Perdita, a vision of beauty in a powdered wig and feathered hat – she liked to appear dressed in a different style every day, sometimes an aristocrat, sometimes a peasant. It flowed from the fin de siècle days of the 18th century’s frothy obsession with dressing up in style.

Their posture describes attitudes towards gender, femininity, the new taste in satire and gossip. Cross-dressing or taking male parts was sometimes seen as transgressing their sexuality. These moral and sexual references also include issues of women’s rights, which were published by some of these actress-writers and businesswomen in pamphlets as early as 1798.

A contemporary artist fond of cross-dressing is Grayson Perry. Perry’s charismatic presence, aided by his ubiquitous teddy bear Alan Measles, the god of his personal cosmology, is barely contained by the British Museum, which has offered him an exhibition: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman (to 19 February 2012). Despite Perry’s boisterous, child-like energy, he explores serious subjects - shamanism, magic and holy relics - bringing them to life by juxtaposing motorbikes and contemporary culture. Here he re-creates and re-imagines museum exhibits beside their originals, which include a massive tapestry map of truth and belief.

Grayson trawled the Museum’s vast collection to choose 190 objects corresponding to his very original imagination and invites us to view these artefacts through his personal lens. Famous for his beautifully shaped and coloured vases with their sexualised images, Perry suggests that these are not there to be viewed as prurient objects but to remind us that age-old fertility symbols were simply regarded as being part of nature.

His chosen objects range from Polynesian fetishes to Buddhist votive offerings, to 20th-century badges – of which he is a massive collector. The undoubted pièce de résistance is his new work, The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, an unbelievably ornamented cast-iron coffin-ship bearing his tribute to the long-forgotten artists who filled the British Museum.

Gloria Tessler

previous article:Chosen for life instead of death: Kindertransport from Prague to Swanage
next article:The road back to life (review)