The Wild, The Beautiful & The Damned at Hampton Court Palace

Picture taken by me, and it’s pretty good for a mobile phone pic don’t you think?

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 by Melanie Clegg at MadameGuillotine

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.

Holles & Holmes by Sir Peter Lely 

Barbara Villiers by Melanie Clegg at MadameGuillotine
Nell Gwynne by Melanie Clegg at MadameGuillotine

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.

Frances Stuart by Melanie Clegg at MadameGuillotine

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.

Palas Athene by Parmigianino

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.

John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, by Melanie Clegg at MadameGuillotine

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!

Barbara Villiers Part 4: Downfall and Death

Barbara Villiers by Sir Peter Lely

 It’s been a while since I posted about Barbara Villiers, mainly because writing about how her relationship with Charles affected Catherine of Braganza got me a little teared up. I can’t help it, this family just give me way too many feelings ok? As I’ve said previously, I find Barbara utterly fascinating but well, she really wasn’t the nicest of women was she? Anyway, today’s post will concentrate on her downfall, her banishment and her death as a lonely, penniless old woman.

As mentioned in the previous post, Barbara had taken the pretty young Frances Stuart under her wing, manipulating the King’s obsession with her to her own ends. Sadly for Barbara, the King’s obsession with Frances meant that he began to spend less time with Barbara, and Frances had really begun to outshine the King’s main mistress. And so, in a carefully planned display of power, Barbara would take it upon herself to wear more Jewell’s than both Frances and the Queen put together. There was also an incident at the theatre where one evening she left her ow box and walked uninvited into the King’s box, perching herself between the King and the Duke of York. This was Barbara Villiers making sure that people knew she wasn’t going to be left out. Barbara was also incredibly greedy, raiding the Privy Purse on her own whim, and taking the King’s New Year gifts of silver all for herself, and she would end up gambling a lot of money away – some estimates say she squandered over half a million pounds on her gambling habits. She would also then have to find ways of paying off her debts, which lead to her acquiring land from the King and then selling said land off – a good example of this being her being given Nonsuch Palace which she consequently ransacked and demolished to pay her debts.

The next really important event in Barbara’s life that needs talking about is her role in the downfall of Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon. As we have already seen, the two did not get on at all and Clarendon particularly disliked her. The main issue was that Barbara had placed her own puppets at the centre of politics and this left poor Clarendon with very little to do. Barbara had been waiting for a long time to be rid of Clarendon and to get rid of the man that she so despised; that opportunity came with the signing of the Treaty of Breda which was agreed before Parliament could be assembled. Clarendon was blamed for preventing Parliament from doing anything about it, and the outcry was headed by none other than Barbara Villiers.

The Treaty of Breda

As such, Charles was persuaded. Clarendon had to go. Clarendon was thus summoned to a private meeting in which he spoke out against Barbara’s influence on the King. Charles, of course, was outraged and stormed out leaving Clarendon standing there at a loss. What on earth had he done? Two days later, Charles sent to Clarendon to collect the seal of Office from Clarendon and dismissed him from service. Poor Clarendon, victim of Barbara’s scheming, left England on 3rd December 1667.

What was it that made Charles want to get rid of Barbara though? It started when Barbara was pregnant again, this time with Jermyn’s child. She attempted to force Charles to admit paternity of the child but Charles resisted, saying he hadn’t slept with her for months. “God damn ye, but you shall own it!” she cried; and she threatened that if he did not acknowledge the child she would dash its brains out before him, and parade all of his bastards before him. The real turning point came when Barbara made a public fool of the King, and made him fall to his knees and beg for forgiveness saying she didn’t care whose child she bore as long as the King recognised it as his own.

Charles on his knees before Barbara Villiers by William Powell Frith

From then on, the King wanted rid of her, or so the court talk said. After an episode of insolence (yet again) he banished her from court and after three days she collected her things. But once they came face to face everything would be fine again. But at this stage, they were really beyond repair and began to outdo each other in their infidelity – Charles took a fancy to the actress Moll Davis, and later Nell Gwynne would make her way into the King’s affections. She would end up lasting much longer than Moll ever did. And to keep Barbara out of the way at this time, Charles bestowed more and more gifts upon her. To remove her from the immediate vicinity of Whitehall he gave her Berkshire House, and she lived there with her children until it became necessary to sell due to her debts. During this time she also took countless other lovers including a rope dance by the name of Jacob Hall. Much later she would take John Churchill, Duke if Marlborough to her bed, By this time she was well out of favour and was making the most of Charles’ “gifts” whilst he spent his time with his other mistresses.

Louise De Kerouelle eventually became Charles’ Maitresse-En-Titre, completely eclipsing Barbara. And at the same time Nell Gwynne was the woman that Charles escaped too when he wanted a break from the political machinations of his mistresses – Nell made him laugh, and asked little from him unlike Louise. Yet at the same time Barbara still demanded that her sons be given titles.

In 1676, Charles finally managed to get Barbara out of the picture and she moved to Paris where she took a number of lovers. But by the time of Charles’ death in 1685, they were still friends despite everything and on his deathbed Charles apparently asked his brother to be kind to her (as well ash is famous comment to “Let not poor Nelly starve”). After Charles’ death, Barbara was heavilly involved with a man by the name of Cardonell Goodman, nicknamed “Scum”, and there was an incident in which he was found guilty of trying to poison her children which she ultimately ignored.

Barbara would live to a relatively old age and at the age of 64 would become involved in a massive scandal, which involved a trial for bigamy. At 64, completely based on lust, Barbara threw herself into a relationship with Robert Fielding, a man who was known to be incredibly violent. They married on 25th November 1775, and 6 months later she discovered that he had another wife who he had married just two weeks before their own wedding. Why had he done this? To get his hands on their money of course, Barbara herself was said to be worth over £60,000! She had, of course, lost most of her fortune in this unfortunate marriage.

On 9th October 1709, Barbara Villiers died at the age of 68 having spent her last few years at Chiswick. She was cared for by the Duke of Grafton who showed real devotion to her despite her previous issues with Fielding. Her once famous beauty had been destroyed by dropsy, a condition which swelled her body to a vast bulk. She was buried at Chiswick Parish Church in 1709.

Barbara Villiers may have been a nasty piece of work, a woman who had a brilliant mind and who knew who to twist people around her little finger but she died a sad death, lonely and, it seems to me at least, unloved. She had known great power, both being loved by a King and politically but in the end she allowed her lust to get the better of her. Fielding used her, spent most of her fortune and left her high and dry and let her die a sad, lonely old woman. In this sense I feel incredibly sorry for Barbara, she had had a brilliant life spent in the limelight at court, she didn’t care that many hated her. She had real political influence over the King and managed to keep his attention on her for a good many years. She had known the best, only to die with nothing. She was a remarkable woman and a woman who honestly interests me greatly. And whilst as a person, from reading about her, I may dislike her immensely (if only for how she made poor Queen Catherine feel) but also as a person she interests me greatly, she knew how to get what she wanted and managed to keep the King’s interest for many, many years. Barbara Villiers was a woman of her time, who used her womanhood and sexuality to get what she wanted, yet at the same time immersed herself in the male role of politics – and despite how nasty she could be, those qualities alone make her a woman to look up to!

Further reading

Fraser, A, 1979, King Charles II, Butler & Tanner: London
Fraser, A, 1984, The Weaker Vessel: Women’s Lot in Seventeenth Century England, Phoenix: London
Masters, B, 1979, The Mistresses of Charles II, Constable: London
Uglow, J, 2009, A Gambling Man, Faber & Faber: London