The first woman to appear on the professional stage in England is generally considered to be Margaret Hughes who performed at the Vere Street Theatre in 1660 in a production of Othello. Davenant employed eight actresses to perform with his company shortly afterwards. Other notable actresses included Elizabeth Barry who was known as the queen of tragedy. She was trained for the stage by the notorious womaniser the Earl of Rochester, who was also her lover. The most infamous actress of this period was Nell Gwyn, who was painted nude for Charles II and bore him two children.
Figurine representing Susannah Cibber (1714-1766), polychromed and glazed porcelain, Royal Crown Derby Porcelain Company, Derby, England, circa 1777-1780, Robert Eddison Collection. Museum no. S.999-1996
This figurine represents Susannah Cibber as Sigismunda, the vivandière in James Thomson's tragedy Tancred and Sigismunda. In the 18th century a vivandière was a woman who sold food and drink to soldiers and was often a soldier's wife. Susannah Cibber played Sigismunda opposite David Garrick as Tancred at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in 1756. Garrick played Tancred in the original production in 1745 and he frequently revived the play at Drury Lane.
The figure was produced by the Derby factory as a pair to the figurine of Garrick as Tancred. The Derby porcelain factory was established in about 1750 by the Huguenot, Andrew Planche. In partnership with William Duesbury, they produced figures of extremely high quality. By 1770 Duesbury acquired the famous Chelsea China Works and the Bow moulds which resulted in the transfer of a number of extremely skilled craftsmen from London to Derby. They opened a London showroom in 1773 and in 1775 King George III granted the factory the honour of being able to incorporate a crown into the backstamp.
Portrait of Cave Underhill (1634-c.1710) as Obadiah, mezzotint, etching on pape, published by I Caulfield in 1826, Harry Beard Collection. Museum no. S.3143-2009
The Restoration actor, Cave Underhill, had an unusual and memorable name and a distinctive face which made him a natural choice for comic parts. In Sir Robert Howard's comedy The Committee (1662), he played the puritan clerk, Obadiah, who is made drunk by the servant Teague.
Portrait of Anne Bracegirdle (c. 1663-1748) by William Vincent, mezzotint, paper and ink, London, published by John Smith c. 1683-1729
Anne Bracegirdle was one of the first English actresses. Here we see her as Semernia, the Indian Queen in Aphra Behn's play, The Widow Ranter. Her first known stage appearance was at Drury Lane in 1688 when she would have been aged about 25, but she may have acted as a child. She was brought up in the family of Thomas Betterton, the greatest actor of the day, and he is likely to have trained her for the stage. Mrs Bracegirdle (like all Restoration actresses she was addressed as Mrs, although she never married) excelled both as virtuous, suffering tragic heroines and as the sophisticated leading ladies of comedy. William Congreve wrote a succession of roles for her, the most famous being the witty Millamant in The Way of the World. Mrs Bracegirdle was extremely popular with the public and her fellow actors, but she retired from the stage in 1707, preferring to leave while still at the height of her fame.
Portrait of Thomas Betterton (c. 1635-1710), mezzotint, paper and ink, 18th century, Harry Beard Collection. Museum no. S.1905-2009
Thomas Betterton was the son of one of Charles I's cooks. He was on the stage for 50 years, yet just before he died he claimed modestly that he was 'still learning to be an actor'. Both Samuel Pepys and Alexander Pope hailed him as the best they had ever seen, and Pepys praised the restraint of his performances. Betterton's range of characters was extremely wide. He created about 130 new roles, aside from playing such leading parts in the older dramas as Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear and Othello. Colleague and rival Antony Aston admitted, 'His voice was low and grumbling, yet he could tune it by an artful climax, which enforced universal attention, even from the fops and orange-girls'.
Betterton was always heavily involved in the politics of theatre management, as well as being a highly regarded actor. He made his debut in 1660, the year the theatres reopened, and in 1661 was hired by Sir William Davenant for the Duke's Company. When the King's Men collapsed, the two companies merged in 1682. The joint result, with Betterton as the artistic leader, played at Drury Lane until 1695, when the older actors, led by Betterton, left to set up their own company at Lincoln's Inn Fields.
Portrait of Elizabeth Barry (1658-1713) by Charles Knight, stipple engraving, ink on paper, London, published by E & S Harding, London in 1792, Harry Beard Collection. Museum no. S.3475-2009
Elizabeth Barry was brought up by Sir William Davenant, who was awarded one of the two patents when the theatres reopened in 1660. He was also a friend of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, poet and rake. When Barry first met the young earl in 1675 she had just started her acting career. To win a bet, Rochester undertook her training for the stage and promoted her in fashionable society, in return for which she became his mistress from 1675 to 1677.
Her first success was as Leonora in Aphra Behn's Abdelazar, after which she played a number of leading roles including Hellena in Aphra Behn's The Rover, and Emillia in D'Urfey's A Fond Husband. The poet John Dryden pronounced her 'always excellent'. Barry went on to have a prolonged and brilliant career, establishing her reputation as England's leading actress with her performance as Monimia in Otway's The Orphan. She died aged 55.
Portrait of Colley Cibber (1671-1757) by Jean Baptiste van Loo, engraver Gerard van der Gucht, engraved print, mid to late 18th century
Cibber was a man of many parts: actor, theatre manager, playwright and, from 1730, poet laureate. He began his acting career in 1690 with Thomas Betterton's company at Drury Lane. His strength as an actor, as it was with his writing, was in comedy. He particularly excelled in the role of the fashionable coxcomb. His performances as Sir Novelty Fashion in his own play Love's Last Shift and as Lord Foppington, the same character renamed, in Vanbrugh's sequel The Relapse, established his reputation as a comic fop. The wig he wore as Lord Foppington became the talk of the town.
Cibber was a small man and the wig was colossal. It was brought on to the stage in a sedan chair and the actor donned it publicly to the admiration of all beholders. Cibber was a real man of the theatre and his gift as a writer, apart from his instinctive understanding of what the audiences wanted, was to fit himself and his colleagues with parts nicely suited to the talent of each.
Portrait of Nell Gwyn (1650-1687) by Sir Peter Lely, engraver Valentine Green, mezzotint, paper and ink, published in London by W Shropshire on 17 November 1777, Harry Beard Collection. Museum no. S.4391-2009
Eleanor 'Nell' Gwyn is the best known Restoration actress. She started out as an orange-seller at Drury Lane theatre where her wit, looks and charm led to her becoming the mistress of the leading actor, Charles Hart, who trained her to perform. Described by Samuel Pepys as 'pretty, witty Nell', she was a talented singer and dancer and began appearing in plays in about 1665, soon becoming a leading comic actress. Charles II was a great fan of the theatre and of the actresses, several of whom became his lovers at one time or another.
Gwyn was the King's mistress from 1669 to his death in 1685. Several portraits were made of her and even more have been mistakenly identified as her. This engraving is after a portrait painted in about 1664 by the court painter Sir Peter Lely.
Portrait of Margaret Hughes by Sir Peter Lely, mezzotint, ink on paper, published circa 1670s, Harry Beard Collection. Museum no. S.5263-2009
Margaret Hughes was one of England's first actresses, who appeared on the stage shortly after the Restoration of Charles II to the throne in 1660. A performance of The Moor of Venice (Othello) was given in December of that year in an indoor tennis court that had been converted into a theatre. Margaret Hughes is thought to have played the role of Desdemona, the first time that a woman rather than a boy actor had appeared in the part.
Samuel Pepys saw her in the same part in 1669. An actress's wages were not generous and many of the women looked for rich lovers for financial and social advancement (as well as for love of course). Margaret had an affair with an aristocrat called Sir Charles Sedley in the 1660s and a few years later she moved even further up the social scale when she became the mistress of Prince Rupert, a cousin of King Charles II.