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Portraits of Actors, 1720-1920

Portraits of Actors, 1720-1920, includes almost 3500 pictures of actors-studio portraits and actors posing in costume for a particular role or performing a scene from a play. Dramatists, theatrical managers, singers and musicians are also included, but the majority are British and American actors who worked between about 1770 and 1893. Among the hundreds of actors included are: Sarah Siddons, Edmund Kean, John Philip Kemble, Edwin Booth, Edwin Forrest, William Henry West Betty, Charles Mathews, Dorothy Jordan, Frances Abington, and Ada Rehan.

The images were digitized from etchings, engravings, lithographs, mezzotints, aquatints, wood engravings, photographs, and photomechanically-reproduced prints, all from the University of Illinois Theatrical Print Collection. They are indexed by the type of print, actor's name, role, play title, type of performer (such as actors, singers, blackface entertainers), other occupations (such as theatrical managers, dramatists), and a few other subjects (such as costume, "breeches parts" -- women playing male roles -- and child actors).

In their day, these publicity pictures were published as plates in books or sold individually in print shops. They are some of the earliest examples of the mass production of celebrity images, in many ways the forerunners to Us Magazine and "Entertainment Tonight."

This project would not have been possible without the generous support of the University of Illinois Executive Committee and the University of Illinois Large Scale Digitization Working Group.

Project credits:

  • Dawn Schmitz, coordinator
  • Elissa Johnson, digital imaging and metadata
  • Lauren Thurlwell, digital imaging and metadata


Series I (Prints: Portraits and Scenes) of the University of Illinois Theatrical Print Collection (TPC), Rare Book and Manuscript Library, collection #35.

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