Today, at quarter past eight in the morning, the other half and I toddled off to the train station and began to make our way towards Hampton Court. The reason for this was that there was a rather fantastic exhibition on by the name of “The Wild, The Beautiful & The Damned” which I had heard about on tumblr and started going a little crazy about on twitter. The exhibition, concentrating on sex, beauty and the beautifully decadent portraits of the later Stuart era has been on my radar for a very long time. I have loved the work of Sir Peter Lely for the longest time, particularly the portraits he worked on of Charles II’s mistresses (and you all know how much I adore Nell Gwynne!) so it was an absolute honour to be able to see some of these very famous portraits in the flesh. And after a train journey full of delays, as we walked through the majestic gatehouse and up the beautiful staircase, I couldn’t help but feel slightly giddy about seeing these portraits which I have wanted to see for such a long time.
I was slightly disappointed when we first entered the exhibition to find out that photography wasn’t allowed. But then realised that yes, it was probably a good idea because with flashes and stuff…on portraits that have been lent to Historic Royal Palaces by good hearted people who have private collections…the damage could be huge. It is at this point that I would like to thank the lovely Melanie Clegg over at MadameGuillotine for allowing me to use the photographs that she took of the portraits at the recent press day when the exhibition first opened.
The exhibit concentrates not only on the famous mistresses of Charles II (Nell Gwynne, Barbara Villiers, Louise De Kerouelle etc) but also the famous beauties of his court as well as how men were portrayed in portraiture of the time also. I found it exceptionally eye opening, learning how the women of the court used their portraiture to convey innocence, yet there was some pretty scandalous things going on – and despite how many of these women tried to convey innocence through their portraits, they were still called whores. Yet with the men (ala Rochester, who we will come onto later) they were applauded for sleeping around. It really made no sense to me. It was also interesting to read, on the little info boards spotted around the galleries, how at the Restoration court, beauty was everything to these women – they spent hours in front of their mirrors making themselves beautiful, even going so far as to try and dye their hair darker with acid!!
Charles II and the Restoration Court made up the majority of the exhibition, as of course it would considering as how he had rather a lot of mistresses, brought back the theatre and just generally having fun. And as you wander through the Stuart Rooms, sadly visited far less than the more well known Tudor areas of the Palace, you are taken on a story – a story that begins with the colourful reign of King Charles II and that of his sometimes brilliant, sometimes frightening mistresses; and ends in the reign of his niece Queen Anne – the final Stuart monarch, and one who I myself know very little about because well…it just seems far less exciting. As well as this each and every portrait tells a story, and there were a couple that really struck me. In the very first room you enter was a large portrait of two men, one of which was a war hero by the name of Holles who had lost him arm in battle. In the portrait by Lely, you cannot see that the man on the left has only one arm. Instead he proudly holds a sword and is dressed in exceptionally fine clothing. Other stories include that of poisoned young wives, and wives whose young husbands died horrifically in battle. Some of the stories were particularly heart wrenching.
The portraits of Barbara and Nell were the ones I was particularly excited about seeing, particularly having been so interested in these women for so long. With Barbara in particular, you can see how the Lely portraits of her affected each and every portrait he painted after that – she set the scene, and indeed with every other portrait of a beautiful young woman you can see the same heavy lidded eyes, the same pouty lips an the same seductive blush. And with Nell, she was the first mistress that Charles had painted completely naked – according to the placards she would lie there as Lely painted her and Charles would come along and watch (just for kicks? who knows!) – still, there is something incredible about the portrait of Nell, this woman who started out as a common orange seller, moving onto one of the finest comedienne’s of her time and eventually a mistress of the King whose Son would end up with a great title that would follow his family down through the centuries.
The portrait above of Frances Stuart was my other half’s favourite portrait of the whole exhibition. He stood in front of it for a very long time before turning around to me with a look of awe upon his face and stating that she was very pretty and he understood why ole Charlie had a bit of a thing for her! During her time, her contemporaries were completely in awe of this beautiful young woman, calling her La Belle Stuart and she has even been immortalised as the famous Britannia figurine so often seen on our coins!
As you walk through the exhibition, you are also treated to other works of art including the famous Windsor Beauties by Lely, as well as stunning works of art by other artists at the time including a few by the wonderful Kneller (who painted the lovely Lady Middleton!) – there are also works of art from some prominant Italian artists at the time including Gennari and Parmigianino, who Lely used as inspiration.
Of course, any exhibition of lasciviousness and Sex at the Stuart court wouldn’t be complete without the appearance of the lovely John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. That man who wrote bawdy poetry, pornographic plays, had his portrait painted with a monkey and who died of Syphilis. I’m sorry, the man was a legend.
I’m not sorry at all.
The costumed displays done by members of staff here were also top notch. There were two people playing Barbara Villiers and Sir Peter Lely, and I may have made a bit of a show of myself creeping around Sir Peter and asking him for a picture. Sir Peter sadly refused on the grounds that photo’s weren’t allowed in the exhibition, and instead I would have to make do with looking on his pretty face. It was pretty hilarious. Anyway, shortly after I was done creeping around him, there was a bit of a show on in a room at the end of the exhibition whereupon Barbara Villiers was getting ready to have her portrait painted. It turns out that Lely was a bit of a dude, who enjoyed dancing around a pretend maypole and making jokes about his favourite actresses and I also learnt a fair bit about restoration dress and how it was boring if a lovely lady was painted in her normal dress, and that silk was much much better.
I have to say, I loved each and every second I spent in those galleries, as did my partner. We loved it so much we ended up having another look at least 3 times before we decided it was time to go home! It was laid out fantastically, telling a story as you went in chronological order. And well, the portraits were just eye meltingly gorgeous. So gorgeous in fact, I’m going again in a couple of weeks. This has actually been planned for week but shhhhh, don’t tell anyone…
I thoroughly, THOROUGHLY recommend this exhibit to anyone interested in Stuart England because it certainly has taught me a hell of a lot and I have loved this family since well…forever. I would have loved to organise staying on for one of the salacious gossip tours but alas, time and money was an option for this one. In fact, Hampton Court has gone rather mad for salacious, sexy, restoration court stuff it seems with a special Audience With Charles II next Monday. Again, I wish I was going, but alas, time and money is again an option here. It’s made me rather tempted to buy a years membership to the HRP! Oh, and on my way out I also picked up a copy of the accompanying book to go with the exhibition by the name of “Beauty, Sex and Power” which I am very much looking forward to reading, as well as another book on Royal Sex by Roger Powell which looks interesting and ranges from the Stuarts right up to the modern day!
Of course, we did a lot more than just wander around this fantastic exhibition all day. But that is for another post!