An actor's life is just cakes and ale

An exhibition of paintings collected by W Somerset Maugham reveals that showbiz types have long had sordid reputations. David Benedict reports
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"With all my heart, I still love the man I killed." In the 1940 film The Letter, Bette Davis got to utter W Somerset Maugham's most famous line. Yet despite considerable success with 30-odd plays, novels and short stories, he described himself as "in thevery first row of the second-raters". There was nothing second-rate about his collection of theatrical paintings however, and from Tuesday, they are on show at the Theatre Museum.

"He had a real passion for it. People say it was all about money, but he picked things up for 30 bob. Later he began to collect Impressionists which was all about investment, but this collection is different." Frances Hughes claims to be a strictly amateur theatre historian but the depth and range of her theatrical knowledge is exhaustive.

The collection runs from 1759 to 1846, covering the golden age of British acting from Garrick to Macready. "In many ways they're the equivalent of pin-ups, or the postcards you buy at the RSC or the National." Actors such as Garrick were certainly shrewdbusinessmen and a bit of advertising in the form of portraiture was good for the box-office, let alone personal vanity.

Anyone imagining that badly-behaved showbiz personalities are a modern phenomenon, should take a look. "[Edmund] Kean was illegitimate, ill-educated and over-sexed. He was also a drunkard and a genius and probably the great tragedian, but at 46 he was completely burnt out. He led a scandalous life. He always had a bottle of brandy to swig from in the wings and when playing King Lear he is known to have had three prostitutes in his dressing room whom he would service in the course of the performance." She laughs. "He certainly wasn't a gentleman."

"Macready was the great tragedian after Kean. Tennyson described him as gracious, moral and sublime. He had an enormous temper, was devoted to his wives, was a great friend of Dickens and had a long-standing affair with Ellen Faucit, a great actress of the day. He hated his profession and he never let his children see him until retirement night when he played Macbeth. He kept wonderful diaries."

For Hughes, it's less an art show than an historical one. Nonetheless, some of the watercolours by Samuel de Wilde and the portraits by people like Johan Zoffany and Francis Hayman are very good. "Hayman went on to be a founder member of the Royal Academy but he started out as a scene painter at Drury Lane and Garrick became his patron."

Garrick co-wrote The Clandestine Marriage, now playing at the Queen's Theatre. It isn't the finest play in the English language, but it does offer ample opportunities for splendid performances. As was the custom in the 19th century, plays were re-writtento order and Garrick played Sir John Brute in Vanbrugh's The Provoked Wife in drag with an enormous over-decorated wig.

"In Garrick's version, when Brute goes out on the tiles the clothes he steals belong to a woman rather than a clergyman. He gave himself the line, `I'm Bonducca, Queen of the Welshman, with a pedigree as long as a leek'. He wasn't averse to playing to the gallery. When playing Hamlet he had a wig with a string attached to make his hair stand on end."

Hughes's enthusiastic conversation is peppered with salacious tales, meaty anecdotes and surprising facts. The light-hearted talks she is giving at the Museum to accompany the exhibition should be well worth it.

How did she become such a mine of information? "In 1945, when I was 11, I'd just gone to North London Collegiate School when I came down with rheumatic fever which meant I couldn't do games for months. Sitting in the library I started to read W Macqueen Pope, a popular theatre historian. I became completely hooked. I collected and read everything I could." She pauses.

"You mustn't think I'm an academic. I know a little about a lot. I just want to cut through the nonsense and give people a sense of what it was really like. It's a merry obsession."

The Somerset Maugham collection is on loan from the National Theatre. The exhibition opens on Tuesday at the Theatre Museum. For details of Frances Hughes's talks, ring 071-836 7891