The Wild, the Beautiful and the Damned

The Wild, the Beautiful and the Damned

Portrait of Nell Gwyn as Venus c.1668, Peter Lely

1 April 2012

Hampton Court Palace is to host a new temporary exhibition about the story of beauty, debauchery and decadent art at the late Stuart Court. 

The Wild, the Beautiful and the Damned, explores the meaning of beauty, and the lives and loves of the courtesans and libertines who lived and died in the Stuart Court during the reigns of Charles II, James II, William III & Mary II and Anne (1660-1714).

At the heart of the exhibition will be portraits of Charles II’s principal mistresses, including Nell Gwyn and Barbara Villiers, brought together at the palace for the first time. Also on display are the resident ‘beautiful women’ of the Royal Court: Peter Lely’s ‘Windsor Beauties’ and Godfrey Kneller’s ‘Hampton Court Beauties’, as we explore their lives and reputations amidst the elegance and decadence of the late 17th century. They will be joined by other Royal Collection paintings, rarely seen portraits from private and public collections, and exquisite fashion accessories, as the exhibition brings to life the glamour and magnificence of the Baroque period.

Visitors will be taken on a journey through the Queens State apartments, guided by the lives of the virtuous and the corrupt. Discover what beauty meant at court – how to display grace and how to use looks to gain attention and influence.  Visitors will learn about the beauty secrets of the day, marvel at the fashions and elegance of court life, but also learn what happens when beauty fades, and when a life of virtue is rewarded by obscurity, and a life of vice by syphilis and death. The exhibition explores the story of how kings, queens and courtesans swept away the Puritanical solemnity of the mid-17th century, and attempted to rewrite the moral code of social behaviour.

Brett Dolman, Historic Royal Palaces exhibition curator, said:  “Visitors to the exhibition will discover that ‘Beauty’ is not just an aesthetic experience: it is an instrument of ambition, a conduit to pleasure and a magnet for sleaze.  This is a story about great art, but also about mistresses and adultery.    Visitors will understand what beauty meant and how it was used in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and they will reflect, perhaps, on their own appreciation of beauty today in the 21st century.

The exhibition explores the ambiguity at the heart of Hampton Court Palace; beauty was a good thing, a reflection of divine perfection, an indication of virtue, but it was also a good excuse to decorate your bedchamber with soft-core private delights. Beauty was admired and revered, but also pursued and possessed. In the exotic world of the Restoration court, beauty could be exploited: women used it to command a new personal and political influence at the heart of government, but were themselves chased and abused, pilloried as whores.”

Charles II, the ‘merry monarch, ruled for twenty-five flamboyant, indulgent and decadent years and pursued ‘beauty’ in all its forms. He ruled over a court famous for its elegance and its magnificence, and he collected artworks and mistresses with equal enthusiasm. He fathered a dozen illegitimate children, but left no legitimate heirs. His brother, James II, matched a similar thirst for infidelity with a less acceptable taste for catholicism, and was turfed out of the country after only three years as king. James’s two daughters, Mary and Anne, who had grown up amidst the debauchery of the Stuart court, each became queens in their own right. The beautiful baroque splendour of Hampton Court was remodelled during the dying days of the last Stuart queens.

The exhibition is the first of a planned ten year programme of new displays and re-interpretation of the Baroque features of Hampton Court Palace.  Live interpretation will support the exhibition characters from the court of Charles II, with a series of presentations as well as a series of special events over bank holiday weekends and school holidays.

Notes to Editors

For further information please contact Eloise Maxwell on 020 3166 6340 or email or Katrina Whenham on 020 3166 6307 or email

To view and download images please visit HRP’s online photographic library at

  • Exhibition entry, tours, audio guides, and special presentations during the school holidays are included in the ticket price. Admission: Adult £15.40, Child under 16 £7.70
  • 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 (includes live interpretation)
  • ‘Salacious Gossip' tours commence in April, May and September at £25.00 per person (for up to 35 people) on Fridays and Sundays, starting at 7.30pm and lasting an hour and a half. These will include all the stories we couldn't possibly tell while the palace is open to children! Visitors will spend time in the exhibition, but it is a guided tour with less browsing time and more of a focus on some specific characters and objects.
  • Tickets available from early December by contacting 0844 482 7777 or

About Historic Royal Palaces

Historic Royal Palaces is the independent charity that looks after the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace, the Banqueting House, Kensington Palace and Kew Palace.  We help everyone explore the story of how monarchs and people have shaped society, in some of the greatest palaces ever built.

We receive no funding from the Government or the Crown, so we depend on the support of our visitors, members, donors, volunteers and sponsors. These palaces are owned by The Queen on behalf of the nation, and we manage them for the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

We believe in four principles.  Guardianship: giving these palaces a future as long and valuable as their past. Discovery: encouraging people to make links with their own lives and today’s world.  Showmanship: doing everything with panache. Independence: having our own point of view and finding new ways to do our work. 

Registered charity number 1068852     

Hampton Court Palace is open seven days a week - please see for information on opening hours and admission prices.

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