Key paintings

Key paintings

A portrait of Nell Gwyn as Venus (c Private Collection)

This exhibition is now closed

The 'Windsor Beauties'

In the 1660s, Peter Lely completed a series of idealised sensuous portraits now known as the ‘Windsor Beauties’. Painted originally for Anne Hyde, Duchess of York, these ten portraits immortalise some of the most important female courtiers of the day. An artist like Lely was expected to improve upon nature – to represent his subject’s refinement and virtue on the painted canvas. Unsurprisingly, the results were hugely popular, and every courtier coveted the latest fashionable accessory: a Lely portrait.

Frances Stuart, painted by Lely as Diana, the chaste Roman goddess of the hunt, was actively chased around the Court by Charles II, soon after her arrival as a teenage Maid of Honour to Queen Catherine. She – just about – resisted, and became celebrated at the time for her beauty and for her virtue.

A collector's item

Some complained that Lely’s women all looked the same. Lely’s idealising style encouraged sitters to think of themselves as fashion plates, as well as making it easier for the artist, and his assistants, to reproduce portraits quickly. Nonetheless, copies of Lely’s portraits were in great demand and also circulated as engraved prints, and collectors were not just motivated by artistic connoisseurship! Baptist May, Keeper of the Privy Purse and – as Samuel Pepys described him – ‘court pimp’, had eight portraits of women in his Court lodgings, at least four of them royal mistresses.

A portrait of Charles II (c The Royal Collection)Men like Charles II collected portraits of the most beautiful women at Court and surrounded them with images of naked mythological heroines. It was easy to conflate their identities and embark on lurid personal fantasies. This is a portrait of the lascivious King himself, by John Michael Wright: even in his coronation robes, Charles looks a little raffish.




Alluring women and heroic men

For these paintings are not just about the beauty of the soul; Lely’s women shed their clothing and gazed alluringly. Some (but not all) lived up to their artistic promise. Margaret Brooke and her sister Frances were ‘both formed by nature to excite love in others as well as to be susceptible of it themselves’. Margaret became the openly acknowledged mistress of James, Duke of York, just after her own marriage to the poet, John Denham (he was 50; she was about 18). 

Lely, and later Kneller, both sought to capture male beauty through the idealisation of virtuous and manly military action. For notions of male beauty were shaped on the battlefield, rather than at the dressing table. Admiral Russell was a war hero. This portrait celebrates his naval victories over the French. In celebration, he staged a grandiloquent party, with a ‘mighty bowl of punch ... made in a fountain in the garden’ which included four hogsheads of brandy, twenty-five thousand lemons, twenty gallons of lime juice and ‘a little boat, in which was a boy who rowed round the fountain and filled the cups of the company’.

The 'Hampton Court Beauties'

Kneller was the successor to Lely as the principal portrait artist at the English Court. In the 1691, he was asked by Queen Mary II to paint the ‘Hampton Court Beauties’, the eight ‘reigning toasts’ of her own Court: ‘the most beautiful site because the originals were all in being, and often to be compared with their pictures’. Mary herself was the ‘Sovereign Queen of Beauty’, a fashion trend-setter and collector of fine china. In her commission to Kneller, she was consciously paying homage to the Lely ‘Windsor Beauties’, collected by her mother a generation earlier.






Aside from Lely and Kneller, other artists working at the Court absorbed the prevailing taste for informal, revealing portraiture, whilst pursuing their own particular ideas of what ideal beauty should look like. William Wissing had his own way of bringing a fashionable blush to the cheeks of his sitters. ‘When any lady came to see him, whose complexion was any ways pale, he would commonly take her by the hand, and dance her about the room, till she became warmer, by which means he heightened her natural beauty, and made her fit to be represented by his hand’…

The rewards of beauty

This was a passionate decadent age, where the sensuality of the Court was reflected in its portraiture, when the rewards of using your beauty to advance your ambition were manifest. Royal mistresses like Nell Gwyn were handsomely rewarded for their services; Nell’s own son by the King, Charles Beauclerk, was created Duke of St Albans, and married into the established aristocracy: Diana de Vere was the daughter of the Earl of Oxford and another of Kneller’s ‘Hampton Court Beauties’.

Beauty was not just an aesthetic experience. It was an instrument of ambition, a conduit to pleasure and a magnet for sleaze. 


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