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Daughters on the stage

What was life like for the first actresses?

Move over, Christine Keeler; Frances Abington got there first. Arms draped over a chair, thumb resting teasingly on parted lips, the actress stares directly - challengingly? - at the viewer. In his painting of 1771, Joshua Reynolds did what every portraitist aspires to do: give an insight into the personality of the sitter. For me, Abington is the star of the National Portrait Gallery's exhibition "The First Actresses". The journey begins in the 17th century with Nell Gwyn, who seems congenitally unable to keep her top on, and ends with the rather more respectable Sarah Siddons, who died in 1831.

The collected portraits offer a fascinating, if partial, glimpse into the lives of actresses - a profession so closely associated with prostitution in its early days that one word was a slang term for the other. Many early actresses flitted from one bed to another: Gwyn notoriously worked her way up from orange-selling scamp to mother of two royal bastards, via a series of increasingly aristocratic patrons. Others juggled motherhood and careers in a way that would make the Daily Mail wince: Dorothea Jordan returned to the stage soon after the birth of each of her ten children, as her royal lover - the Duke of Clarence, later William IV - was perpetually broke.

Beyond the pale

In the notes accompanying the exhibition, actresses working today talk wistfully about the early days of the profession. "I wish it were still disreputable," Emma Thompson says. "It's easier to say or show the human condition if you are somehow beyond the pale." Helena Bonham Carter laments the intrusion of the paparazzi: "The profession has been transfigured . . . I am sure the average Joe Bloggs would have no idea what Nell Gwyn actually looked like and she would be able to go about her daily life unrecognised." Historians might disagree. One of the anecdotes most frequently told about Gwyn is the time an angry crowd surrounded her coach in the mistaken belief she was the king's Catholic mistress, Louise de Kérouaille. "Good people, be civil, I am the Protestant whore," was her supposed retort.

Gwyn was also one of the first actresses to become a pin-up - Samuel Pepys had a nude picture of her as Cupid over his desk in the Admiralty. Her successors played a similar game by getting their portraits in the Royal Academy's summer exhibition. Mary "Perdita" Robinson and Siddons (whom Reynolds painted as "the tragic muse") then saw their images distributed in cheap prints and their clothes and hairstyles widely copied.

There might have been no Grazia magazine in the 18th century but actresses still felt the glare of the media spotlight.

“The First Actresses" is at the National Portrait Gallery in London until 8 January