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Sir Peter Lely (Westphalia 1618-1680 London)
Property of a Family Trust
Sir Peter Lely (Westphalia 1618-1680 London)

Portrait of a lady, traditionally identified as Barbara Palmer, née Villiers (1640-1709), Countess of Castlemaine and 1st Duchess of Cleveland, three-quarter-length, in a yellow dress, a coastal landscape beyond

Details
Sir Peter Lely (Westphalia 1618-1680 London)
Portrait of a lady, traditionally identified as Barbara Palmer, née Villiers (1640-1709), Countess of Castlemaine and 1st Duchess of Cleveland, three-quarter-length, in a yellow dress, a coastal landscape beyond
oil on canvas
50 ¼ x 40 5/8 in. (127.6 x 103.2 cm.)
Provenance
Acquired by Arthur Nall-Cain (1904-1967), 2nd Baron Brocket, for Bramshill Park, Hampshire and later at Carton House, County Kildare, Ireland and by descent to the present owner.

Lot Essay

This sumptuous and beautifully preserved portrait is an outstanding example of Lely’s work from the 1660s, the decade in which the artist firmly established his position as the pre-eminent portraitist of King Charles II’s reign. The sitter’s languorous pose, her direct gaze and rich satin dress, which is handled with consummate skill, display all the quintessential hallmarks of Lely’s mature Baroque style.

Born to Dutch parents in the garrison town of Soest in Westphalia, Lely moved to England in the early 1640s. He initially specialised in landscapes with small figures and historical compositions of which his Sleeping Nymphs (London, Dulwich Picture Gallery) is the finest surviving example. However, such subject pictures did not lead to commercial success and by the late 1640s he had increasingly turned to portraiture. As Sir Anthony van Dyck and William Dobson, the most gifted native artist, had died in 1641 and 1646 respectively, and Cornelis Johnson had returned to Holland, Lely’s precocious talent shone. He found patronage among a closely related group of families, the ‘noble defectors’, Northumberland, Leicester, Salisbury and Pembroke, who had all remained in London during the Civil War, united in political sympathy and interest, and by a puritan dislike of Laudianism.

By the time of the Restoration of the Monarchy in England in 1660, which heralded a new artistic age with the pleasure-loving court of Charles II at its epicentre, Lely had established himself as the pre-eminent portrait painter ‘in large’ in the country, with the most prosperous business and the most influential patrons. Reflecting this reputation, in October 1661, King Charles II was to grant him an annual pension of L200 as the King’s Principal Painter ‘as formerly to Van Dyck’, as well as naturalisation. The portraits which he executed over the following decades of the king, his family, his mistresses and many of the other central figures at court have allowed later generations an insight into this glamorous world. Of these characters it is undoubtedly the Restoration women of Charles II’s court that form the dominant images of the reign. Sir Roy Strong wrote of these portraits: ‘These are no longer beauties of the sunset but bawds who welcome oncoming night and its sports. They are voluptuous fleshy ladies, less often found in movement across a garden than slumped in a hollow in a landscape, exhausted from nameless exertions. Their eyelids droop, their bosoms are full and expansive, and their dresses reveal more than they should. These goddesses are celebrated neither for virtue nor chastity. For a moment beauty and sex are aligned in a triumph of unashamed sensuality’ (R. Strong, The Masque of Beauty, exhibition catalogue, London, 1972, p. 7).

That the sitter for this portrait had been traditionally identified as the King’s most notorious mistress, Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland, should come as no surprise. A contemporary noted that after Lely had painted the most beautiful and powerful lady at court, the artist ‘put something of Clevelands face or her Languishing eyes into every one Picture, so that all his pictures had an Air one of another, all Eyes were Sleepy alike’ (see C. MacLeod and J. Marciari Alexander, Painted Ladies, Women at the Court of Charles II, exhibition catalogue, London, 2001, p. 50).

We are grateful to Catharine MacLeod and Diana Dethloff for their assistance with this catalogue entry. They date the picture to the early 1660s and compare the yellow satin dress to that worn by Anne Hyde, Duchess of York, in Lely’s portrait, now in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh.

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