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

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 14 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The NHS 1948-2011, so what comes next?

Photo: Getty Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR