Portraiture and the Birth of Celebrity on the Eighteenth-Century Stage

Celebrity as a noun signifying ascribed fame was a late eighteenth-century neologism in England. Many scholars exploring the birth of celebrity culture attribute the growth of fascination with public figures to a commodification of public life that especially affected politicians, aristocratic women and stage performers. The development of a modern celebrity culture was also fuelled by the greater accessibility of portraits—both in public exhibitions and in print shops. A number of actors, such as Garrick and Siddons, were especially adept at consciously manipulating their public image, while artists gained patronage and attention by choosing celebrity sitters.

However, with a few notable exceptions (such as Gainsborough’s portrait of Giovanna Baccelli), dancers were less visible in the flooded portrait market of eighteenth-century London. I will suggest that this can be explained in part by a visual culture that privileged a particularly national view of celebrity. The rhetoric of a ‘British school of art’ contributed to marginalizing foreign singers and dancers on the London stage, as well as other immigrant artisans who had a major role to play in the economics of eighteenth-century London leisure life.

Shearer West is head of the humanities division at the University of Oxford and formerly Director of Research at the Arts and Humanities Research Council and head of the School of Historical Studies at the University of Birmingham. She is the author and editor of many books and articles on eighteenth-century theatre and portraiture, including Portraiture, The Image of the Actor, and Italian Culture in Northern Europe in the Eighteenth Century.

Shearer West
Author affiliation
Humanities Division, University of Oxford