A painting of Charles II dancing at a ball (c The Royal Collection)


This exhibition is now closed

The art of beauty

Aristocratic men and women ‘performed’ for and were in competition with each other when it came to seeking to enhance their popularity and their sexual prospects.

Being beautiful helped enormously, but good looks were only one element of a successful ‘beautiful performance’. Courtiers were required to display impeccable manners, eloquent conversation and refined dancing skills, and it all had to look natural and untutored.

The 'quest' for true beauty

The decadent pursuit of the beautiful life was defended as a principled quest for spiritual truth. The libertarians argued that, by experiencing the extremes of life, you discovered beauty and truth in unexpected places, in entangled locks of hair and in moments of dramatic intensity …

A portrait of Charles Sackville (c Knole, The Sackville Collection)

John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (1647-80) was the most notorious of the rakehells of the Restoration Court. He led a rich life, full of sex, violence, alcohol and scandal. His merry gang, courtiers like Charles Sackville (1638-1706), were professional seducers of the innocent new arrivals at Court and satirical commentators on the self-righteous behaviour of the virtuous poetasters that eulogised beauty as an untouchable ideal.

The high price of beauty

Most husbands, however, although parasitically attracted to other people’s wives, were not at all content to be cuckolded. Beyond a widespread fear of the deceitful ambition of beautiful women, there were some personal, and timeless, reactions to the power of beauty, and some very particular victims.

Elizabeth Stanhope
(1640-65), the young wife of the Earl of Chesterfield, was banished from Court because she had attracted the attention of James, Duke of York. Within a year she was dead, poisoned – it was rumoured – by her jealous husband.

Ask Chiffinch logo - sketch of William ChiffinchAsk Chiffinch: tips for Courtiers

17th century love-life advice from Charles II's 'Pimpmaster General'. FOLLOW for a weekly photo-dilemma, or SUBMIT your own question for his no-nonsense response... what will you ask?

 Further information

Entrance to the exhibition is included in your Hampton Court Palace admission ticket and is free for members. This exhibition contains adult content.

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Late opening on Mondays

On the first Monday of each month from May to September, the exhibition will remain open until 21.30. Hampton Court Palace closes as normal, but the exhibition remains open to daytime visitors wishing to stay. Evening-only tickets are priced at £10.00 per person and are available for pre-booking, or walk-up on the day.


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