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Acting their socks off

Contemporary stage paintings of David Garrick and his peers reveal an age when rolling down a stocking was seen as a dramatic gesture. By Andrew Graham-Dixon
The identity of the portly, bewigged gentleman with a book in one hand and an expression of inscrutable discomfort on his face is not immediately apparent. He looks like he might be a barrister inconvenienced by indigestion while in the course of his perorations. In fact he is Hamlet, as played by a certain David Ross on the London stage in the 1750s, pondering whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them.

Johann Zoffany's David Ross as Hamlet is the earliest work in "Dramatic Art: Theatrical Paintings from the Garrick Club", a small, engaging exhibition which has just opened at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Zoffany's picture is a memorial to the stiff, declamatory style of delivery favoured in the British theatre during the first half of the 18th century, when an unrelieved stateliness of manner and deportment was the goal of every tragic actor. In Ross's interpretation of the role, all Hamlet's trouble and turmoil was apparently displaced to one minute disarrangement of costume. Desmond Shawe-Taylor, in his wry and informative exhibition catalogue, instructs us to look closely at Zoffany's picture and to notice that the actor had carefully rolled down the top of his left stocking - a somewhat grudging concession to Ophelia's description of Lord Hamlet "with his doublet all unbraced, / No hat upon his head, his stockings foul'd, / Ungarter'd, and down-gyved to his ankle". In fact, Ross's single out-of- place stocking was not, for reasons of propriety (or "seemliness", as a theatre critic of the day might have put it), unpeeled quite as low as the text demands, descending only to mid-calf. Judging by his otherwise impeccable appearance, down-gyving did not come easily to the actor. Such nearly unrufflable composure was about to go permanently out of fashion and Zoffany, once again, was on hand to record the change.

Enter, stage left, David Garrick as Macbeth and Hannah Pritchard as Lady Macbeth. There is fake blood on his hands and she clutches a pair of daggers while reproving him for his infirmness of purpose. They stand in a cursory Gothic baronial hall while a stage-painter's moon lights the false sky seen through leaded panes behind them. On the other side of a half-open door embossed with standing knights framed by ogive arches (this stageprop construction of medieval Scotland is full of intimations of Walter Scott), Duncan may be presumed dead. Another fatality is also implicit. The arrival of Garrick on the scene meant that the likes of David Ross, or his yet more celebrated contemporary James Quin - an actor who, according to one eyewitness, used to speak "with very little variation of cadence, and in a deep full tone, accompanied by a sawing kind of action" - were soon no more to be seen. They had strutted their hour upon the stage and now their time was up.

Garrick's contemporaries attributed his revolutionary impact on theatre in their time to his "naturalness", although Zoffany's picture suggests that their idea of naturalistic acting was far removed from our own. Garrick stands stock still on the threshold of Duncan's chamber, frozen in an attitude of mannequin paralysis designed to dramatise his lack of resolution ("I'll go no more. / I am afraid to think what I have done, / Look on't again I dare not"). The painting almost certainly gives a very clear sense (as many paintings of actors do not) of Garrick's acting style, which was itself much inspired by painting. Garrick developed a large repertoire of poses, many of them modelled on figures in famous narrative pictures, such as the Raphael cartoons, into any of which he might fall according to whatever motion of the mind a given part called upon him to embody. One of his contemporaries described him and Hannah Pritchard in Macbeth: "You heard what they spoke, but you learnt more from the agitation of mind displayed in their action and deportment... The wonderful expression of heartfelt horror, which Garrick felt when he showed his bloody hands, can only be conceived by those who saw him." This style of acting was largely a visual performance, so to paint Garrick in the grip of one of his set-piece emotions, as Zoffany did, was perhaps not to falsify but to perfect his performance.

It was once said that Garrick had aged prematurely, to which Dr Johnson sharply replied that this was no surprise since "his face has double the business of any other man's". Double demands were made on the audience, too. Garrick's blend of drama and mime, in which the actor's successive emotions were permanently so overt, may have been cumulatively somewhat wearing. His chameleon versatility was never outdone, although it was rivalled by that of the most celebrated of his immediate successors, the mercurial Edmund Kean, who accelerated expression to the point where the actor himself became almost unpaintable because the emotions that shivered through his body changed with such rapidity.

Watching Kean at work, said Coleridge, was "like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning"; whereas for Hazlitt the effect was "like an anarchy of the passions, in which each upstart humour, or frenzy of the moment, is struggling to get violent possession of some bit or corner of his fiery soul and pygmy body - to jostle out and lord it over the rest of the rabble of short-lived and furious passions". George Clint's oil sketch, Edmund Kean as Richard III, captures this sense of the actor's sheer uncapturability precisely because it is an unfinished work. Kean's lithe "pygmy body" here is no more than an insubstantial suggestion of an anatomy, a blur of potential. His face, trembling between expressions, suggests an unpleasant mixture of ingratiation and insincerity.

This exhibition is about more than plays and players, just as the gap that separates David Ross from Garrick and Kean is a sign of rather more than a mere change in the taste of theatre audiences. When actors gave up declamation for impersonation, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, they were reflecting one of the larger shifts in the priorities of their time. A new order of self-consciousness was being born. By searching for more urgent ways to express an inner self, as these actors were clearly (if still a little woodenly) doing, they were exploring one of the leading preoccupations of the period. The new acting methods were as much a sign of the spirit of the age as the development of new forms of introspective lyric verse in the hands of Wordsworth and Coleridge, Keats and Byron. There was also, perhaps, a connection between the new drama and the extraordinary extremes to which the cartoonist James Gillray was pushing caricature at the time, transposing what he fancied to be people's true inner deformities on to their exterior form - much as Garrick or Kean might screw their faces up to body forth the inner evil of one such as Shakespeare's Richard III, smiling, and murdering while he smiled.

John Philip Kemble, who was, with Kean, the most famous tragic actor of the post-Garrick period, seemed to some to mark the return of the declamatory, statuesque breed of thespian. Hazlitt described him as "the very still life and statuary of the stage... an icicle upon the bust of tragedy", while the Irish politician James Philpot Curran, finding himself at breakfast with the great man, thought he looked as if he had just eaten "a poached curtain rod". But although Kemble certainly was, to judge by Thomas Lawrence's various bravura portraits of him, an exceptionally unbending and grave actor, there was nothing old-fashioned about him. His ponderousness was not that of the era of David Ross; when we see him, through Lawrence's eyes, playing Hamlet, or Cato, his eye solemnly upturned towards the prospect of his own immortality, we see, rather, the very embodiment of Byronic terribilita. This is a solemnity which seems not declarative but introspective, as if in place of his predecessors' less dignified frenzies of outward feeling, Kemble preferred to suggest, through absolute if troubled stillness, a great inner tumult of thought. He must have been a dreadful bore because, in the end, the impression of a tremendous inwardness cannot make for compelling drama. The Romantic generation was a self-obsessed one, and for that reason none of the Romantic authors ever managed to write satisfactory theatre (Byron's Manfred or Wordsworth's The Borderers are unperformable monologues masquerading as plays). Yet perhaps this is why Kemble, when we see him in art, seems both unwatchable and the embodiment of the Romantic actor. He looks like a man equipped perfectly for soliloquy, and for nothing else.

'Dramatic Art: Theatrical Paintings from the Garrick Club' is at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London SE21 (0181-693 8000). To 16 March