One picture is worth a thousand words

Uploaded by OUresearch on 05.03.2009

When I was researching these portraits
I noticed that there was an enormous amount of writing
on the idea of the actresses - seductive, beguiling.
So I grew very interested
in this idea of the actress as essentially flirtatious,
as negotiating her sexuality to attract and seduce the spectator.
Most of these portraits that I've been looking at
are painted by male artists
and you could argue that the male artist controls the image.
But if the painting was commissioned by an actress
then the actress would often have some say in the final outcome.
She might give her suggestions and ideas about pose, about conventions.
They'd often work in collaboration.
And there's a sense in which an actress
could also use a painted portrait as her own form of advertising.
She could promote a certain image of herself as grandiose,
or in classical costume, as flirtatious, as beautiful,
much in the way one might argue that contemporary female stars
use photography and media images to promote themselves as celebrities.
One of the struggles going on at the time within the dramatic arts
was an attempt to separate out the idea of the actress as whore,
the idea of the theatre as a kind of marginal, low-life activity.
They wanted to develop the idea of the theatre as an art
with equivalent status to painting or poetry.
The culmination of this research
and this interest in the idea of flirtation
as a way of interpreting portraiture
has been in my book called 'Spectacular Flirtations'
and that is forming the basis of a National Portrait Gallery exhibition.
We hope that those same images
are going to seduce a 21st century audience
in the way that they did an 18th century audience.
That they're going to encourage a contemporary audience
to think long and hard about the relationship between art and theatre
and about the important symbolic role that women have played
in the professionalisation of the theatre.