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!

Review: The Mistresses of Charles II by Brian Masters

I found this book after doing a search on Amazon for Nell Gwynne, who as you all know is my favourite mistress of Charles II. And when I saw this gem for such a bargain I couldn’t resist, as not only do I adore Nell but have a bit of a fascination with the other mistresses too particularly Lucy Walter and Barbara Villiers. And so it was with a sense of sheer excitement that I picked up this book and began to read.

The first thing I will say is that this is quite an old book, having first been published in 1979 and I noticed as I read that Masters said that certain events definitely happened, when in fact they are apocryphal. This may be because he based a lot of his research on some very old sources, including works written in the early 1900’s. For instance during Barbara Villiers’ chapter he mentions an incident whereupon Barbara bit off the penis of a perfectly preserved priest – despite her many faults I honestly don’t think that she would have done this and I have never read a credible source that says she did this. Also with a few of his statements he does not state WHERE he got the information from and indeed this book is not cited very well at all – there are no footnotes as you go through the chapters rather a list of sources at the end of each chapter. Had the work been cited properly then I think I would trust it a little more than I do. Saying that however, I did enjoy this book but I had to go into it with my eyes open.

Masters concentrates on the main four mistresses that Charles II kept throughout his reign, although he is said to have had many, many more; Lucy Walter, Barbara Villiers, Nell Gwynne and Louise De Kerouelle. Each chapter gives and overview of each woman’s life, from their birth until their death and describes in detail their careers at the court of Charles II. Masters starts with the first well known mistress that Charles had whilst he was in exile, Lucy Walter. I found this chapter to be very interesting and I know very little of Lucy bar the fact that she gave birth to the ill fated James, Duke of Monmouth. She was the first woman that Charles ever loved and it seems that he was so head over heels in love with her that his advisors at the time believed him to have gone mad! Later in his reign there would be rumours that Charles had actually married Lucy, but these started much earlier and during their actual relationship. Yet according to Masters, she would turn on him once their relationship had ended and Charles resorted to kidnap attempts to get his young son away from her. I won’t go too much into it as it’s a whole other post, but young James was eventually taken back by Charles and grew up under the care of William Crofts. His mother did not survive to see the Restoration of the monarchy as she died in 1656 and so did not have the chance to see her sons fall from grace in 1685. Barbara Villiers is perhaps the best known of Charles’ mistress after Nell Gwynne and from the get go we get a sense of Barbara’s lust for power, her greed. She wanted Charles all to herself and often conspired against others at court, including the Queen and Clarendon. She always tried to outshine the Queen and Charles’ other mistresses, showing up to events in much much more jewellery than them. As I read through this chapter I must say I felt so, so sorry for Queen Catherine of Braganza – she showed up at Charles’ court completely naive in the ways of the world, only to have his mistress shoved in her face from the get go. Is it any wonder she at first refused to have Barbara join her bedchamber? And any wonder she spent so much time on her own? If I am brutally honest, whilst I find Barbara Villiers utterly fascinating, I can’t help but dislike her an awful lot. This is a woman who was so, so greedy that she ended up pulling down Nonsuch Palace to pay off her gambling debts. She may have had Charles wrapped around her little finger for much of her life but she ended her own life almost penniless, having married a man who squandered most of her fortune. We then come onto Nell Gwynne, my favourite mistress. I have covered Nell and her life in great detail in previous posts so won’t go too much into detail here but I couldn’t help but notice that Masters spends very little time in discussing the arguments of the place of Nell’s birth (It must be London because she’s known as a cockney in the public eye…) and totally discarding the other arguments. There is also no mention of the year of her birth either and the debate surrounding it. But never mind. Despite this, I thoroughly enjoyed reading her chapter and found myself giggling at some of her exploits, how she always tried to pull one over on Louise De Kerouelle. Nell was the mistress who made Charles laugh and who asked for very little in return. Last but not least were the chapters on Louise De Kerouelle, a young woman first brought into Charles’ notice during a visit from his sister Minette. Charles wanted Louise to stay in England but Minette said no. However after Minette’s death, Louise came back to England and became Charles II’s mistress. She was also the go between between England and France, a spy if you will. By this point in the book, I found my interest waning somewhat. I have never been overly fond of Louise due to the fact that she thought so highly of herself, came across as a bit of a snob and was able to turn her tears on and off at will. And like Barbara she had a lust for power and position, and was somewhat greedy. She had no much given to her from Charles because she believed it was her right and for all intents and purposes lived like a Queen. But like Barbara, she ended her own life in heaps of debt and had to keep running from her creditors (she relied on Louis XIV to keep them at bay) yet she died at the exceptional age of 85 years old.

This book did flow nicely, and the style of writing was very easy to follow. It was an easy read, although I would have liked to know more about Lucy and Barbara in particular it would be very difficult to write more about these women without heading into speculation (somewhat like Beauclerk’s “biography” of Nell Gwynne!) which never comes across well in a history book. I would certainly recommend this to anyone interest in the mistresses of Charles II as it is a good starting point, but I would also recommend reading more on these women also as since this was published there has been a lot more work done on these women. Still, a good read and recommended.