The works of Sir Peter Lely have long been my favourite Restoration, and whilst I love the work of Van Dyke and Kneller, I think Lely will always hold a special place in my heart. It probably has something to do with my long standing adoration of Charles II and the Restoration period, and the fact that this fabulous artist has painted some of the historical personages that I so admire. When I first heard about the exhibition at Hampton Court a while back, “The Wild, The Beautiful and The Damned”, I knew I just had to go? Why? Because it would mean seeing some of Sir Peter Lely’s most famous paintings in the flesh, which in all honesty was something I could never have imagined. Think of Sir Peter Lely and what do you think of? His portraits of Charles II, Nell Gwynne, John Wilmot Earl of Rochester? One of his most famous portraits if of Nell Gwynne as Venus, and one of my favourite paintings by him, so as I’m sure you can imagine actually physically seeing it was a bit of a moment for me.
Nell Gwynne as Venus by Sir Peter Lely
Born Pieter van der Faes in Soest (Westphalia, Northern Germany) on 14th September 1618, the little boy would grow up to be one of the greatest Restoration artists. The surname he used later in life, Lely, apparently came from the house where his father had been born which had a Lily on the emblem. Lely’s father noticed early on that his son was more of an artist than a soldier and so sent him to study with an artist by the name of Frans Pieters de Grebber, an artist who is not so well known today.
Elisha Refused The Gifts of Naamen by Frans Pieters de Grebber
The young Lely studdied in Holland with Grebber and it must have proved to be a stimulating environment for the young man.
It is said that the young Lely came to England in either 1641 or 1642 although the exact reason for his move to England is not recorded. It’s possible that he heard of other artists from his area prospering in England under the patronage of Charles I. Did he want to follow in their footsteps? When he first arrived in England it is rather hard to trace his exact whereabouts although it is possible that he worked for the art dealer George Geldorp who had come over from Antwerp in 1626 and was keeper of the King’s pictures, and apparently kept a collection of works by Van Dyke (the man who painted the majority of paintings of Charles I). It has been noted that Lely painted in the style of Geldorp so it is really rather likely that he worked with Geldorp, and was introduced to Geldorps rich patrons.
In 1641, Van Dyke died and other famous portrait painters disappeared from the scene before the onset of the English Civil War or died soon after it’s beginning. It was not until 1647 however that Lely began to practice his art independently when he was free of the Guild of Painters. He had previously made himself known with the Duke of Northumberland and Earl of Salisbury. These men were loyal to Charles I but hadn’t followed the King to Oxford. In 1647, Charles I surrendered Oxford and was kept at Hampton Court – his children James Duke of York and Minette were held at Syon Park by Northumberland. It was Northumberland who commissioned Lely to paint the now famous portrait of Charles I and James Duke of York. This portrait, next to Nell Gwynne is one of my favourites by Lely.
Charles I and the Duke of York by Sir Peter Lely
In 1554, five years after the execution of Charles I, Lely painted the famous portrait of Oliver Cromwell. It is said that as Cromwell sat for his portrait he said, “Mr Lely, I desire that you would use all your skill to paint my picture truly like me, and not flatter me at all; but remark all those roughnesses, pimples, warts and every thing as you see me, otherwise I will never pay you a farthing for it”. Indeed, the portrait of Cromwell certainly shows a man who was painted “warts and all” and there have been those who have suggested that Lely painted it from an existing picture although Cromwell must have approved it for later on, Richard Cromwell also commissioned a portrait from him.
When Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, he was known as one of the best artists in England. And it wasn’t long before he was getting work from those leading the Restoration including King Charles II himself. By 1662 he was a citizen of England and such a popular painter that he was having to employ assistants (something which a man playing Lely was keen to emphasise when I went to The Wild, The Beautiful and The Damned) and was expected to both paint the royal portraits and to provide gift copies. It should be noted that the copies of his work were done to such a high quality that they must have been done under his close supervision. Indeed, when Samuel Pepys visited Lely’s studio for the first time, Lely was so busy that he thought Pepys had turned up to buy a copy of one of his portraits and told the diarist he was full booked up for the next three weeks; and in 1666 James Duke of York commissioned Lely to paint him as Lord High Admiral of the Navy.
The works that Lely is most famous for has to be his “Windsor Beauties” – many of these can be seen hanging in the galleries of Hampton Court. Recently they were all on display at The Wild, The Beautiful and The Damned as a special exhibition and include such court beauties as Barbara Villiers, Frances Stuart and Elizabeth Hamilton.
Barbara Villiers by Sir Peter Lely
Frances Stuart by Sir Peter Lely
Elizabeth Gramont by Sir Peter Lely
Indeed Sir Peter Lely was the man who created the famous “Restoration Image” and it is this for which he is most known. Think of Sir Peter Lely and you will immediately think of a portrait painted by him; indeed he is known for little else other than portraits. It must be noted however that Lely did indeed paint more than just portraits, for instance his little known The Concert which although unfinished is apparently meant to be a visualisation of Shakespeare’s famous line, “If music be the fool of love, play on”. Indeed, despite being unfinished, I feel there is something inherently magical about The Concert.
Lely is not just famous for his royal portraits however. Some of his most beautiful works are indeed of non royals:
Portrait of a Boy by Sir Peter Lely
Sleeping Nymphs by Sir Peter Lely
The Concert by Sir Peter Lely
Sir Peter Lely was knighted in 1680, shortly before his death. It is said that he died at his easel whilst painting the Duchess of Somerset. Indeed, when he died he had become one of the most prominent artists of Charles II’s reign and indeed would go down in history as one of the greatest artists of the Restoration. Indeed, many will recognise his works today, even without knowing who he was. And this has to be a great testament to his skill. Of course to art historians and lovers of the Restoration his work is like a much loved piece of furniture, something we would not do without. Although many of his portraits, particularly of the Windsor Beauties, look incredibly similar facially (it is said he used the same template for many of his portraits but rather changed the dress and backgrounds), I cannot help but love his work. Thanks to Lely, I have been able to connect to the Royalty of the Restoration, to the nobility and even to the famous mistresses of Charles II. And every time I look at his works be it online or in person, I marvel at his beautiful works. Thanks to Lely I was introduced to the Restoration, and for that I owe the man an infinite debt, and for that I will always appreciate his amazing artwork.
Queen Catherine of Braganza by Sir Peter Lely
James Duke of York and Anne Hyde by Sir Peter Lely
Nell Gwynne by Sir Peter Lely
Henrietta Anne “Minette” Stuart by Sir Peter Lely
The Great Artists Issue 69: Lely (link unavailable)