This masterpiece by Lely offers a remarkable glimpse of the culture of the newly restored Court of King Charles II, and is one of the most overtly sensuous portraits to have been painted in 17th Century England. It has long been associated with the work recorded in King James II's inventory of 1688 (three years after the death of King Charles II) as 'Madam Gwynn's Picture naked, with a Cupid', tantalisingly described as being hidden behind a 'slideing peice' by Hendrik Dankerts, yet the identity of the sitter as Nell Gwyn has been the subject of much debate.
Sir Peter Lely, who had been born in the Garrison town of Soest in Westphalia, to Dutch parents, moved to England in the early 1640s. He initially specialised in landscapes with small figures and historical compositions of which his Sleeping Nymphs is the finest surviving example (Dulwich Picture Gallery, see fig. 1). However such subject pictures did not lead to commercial success and by the late 1640s he had increasingly turned to portraiture. With Sir Anthony van Dyck and William Dobson, the most gifted native artist, having died in 1641 and 1646 respectively, and Cornelis Johnson having returned to Holland, Lely's precocious talent shone. He found patronage among a closely related group of aristocratic 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 £200 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 (see fig. 2), his family, his mistresses and many of the other central figures at the court, have allowed later generations an insight into this glamorous world. The Chiddingstone picture, however, is by far the most suggestive of the court's notoriously licentious reputation.
The two most likely candidates for the sitter in the Chiddingstone picture have contrasting iconographies. While there are a significant number of portraits of Barbara Villiers, there are very few documented images of Nell Gwyn. The names of both women have become erroneously attached to many portraits - those claiming to be Nell Gwyn possibly outnumbering Barbara Villiers, partly on account of the former's particular popularity, and party because of the lack of established prototypes.
Nell Gwyn (1650-1687) was of very humble origin. As a child she may have sold oranges outside the Drury Lane Theatre in London, and had become an actress by the age of fifteen when she appeared as Cydaria in John Dryden's The Indian Emperor (1665). She was well suited to the vivacious feminine roles common in Restoration comedies, and Dryden wrote several plays with roles especially for her. Such work brought her into contact with members of the highest echelons of society, and it was not uncommon for popular actresses to become mistresses to aristocrats and members of the royal family. Such was her role firstly to Charles Sackville, Earl of Dorset, and then to the king from about 1668. Although almost completely illiterate, she continued in the king's affections until his death, and was a favourite in London society (being described by Samuel Pepys as 'pretty, witty Nell'). She bore the king two sons: Charles Beauclerk (1670-1726), created Duke of St Albans, and James Beauclerk (1671-1680), created Lord Beauclaire. Gwyn was never bestowed with a title, although it seems the king intended to create her Countess of Greenwich but died before the patent was drawn up.
The most secure portraits of her are contemporary prints in which she is named - engravings by Valck (c. 1673) and Thompson (c. 1679, see fig. 3), after two lost works by Lely, are key examples. That by Valck shows her dress almost completely dispensed with, and a nipple exposed. Such depictions (or completely bare-breasted) are invariably associated with portraits of mistresses, and are common to most putative portraits of Nell Gwyn. The decency of her dress in the Thompson engraving, in which she is shown with her sons, is to be noted. Other works which are likely to portray Nell Gwyn include a series of portraits by, or attributed to, Simon Verelst. Comparing Gwyn in all of these images (see C. MacLeod and J. Marciari Alexander, Painted Ladies: Women at the Court of Charles II, catalogue of the exhibition, 2001, pp. 166-71) with the features of the woman in the Chiddingstone picture can only be described as inconclusive.
While Lely is known to have painted Nell Gwyn at least twice, it is with Barbara Villiers, Countess of Castlemaine (1640-1709), that the artist is most closely associated. The daughter of Lord Grandison, who died of wounds received at the Siege of Bristol, she married (after an affair with Lord Chesterfield) Roger Palmer, Earl of Castlemaine. By the Restoration, however, she was installed as the king's mistress (she was even rumoured to have shared his bed on the night of his Coronation), bore him at least six children and was created Duchess of Cleveland in 1670.
Lely is said to have remarked of her 'that it was beyond the compass of art to give this lady her due, as to her sweetness and exquisite beauty' and, through his many portraits of her, effectively acted as her principal promoter. A woman who wielded significant influence in the first decade of the king's reign, 'as one of the most flagrantly sensual women at the court it was appropriate that she should have become the archetype, for Lely as well as in the eyes of posterity, of the Restoration Beauty' (Sir Oliver Millar, catalogue of the exhibition, Sir Peter Lely, 1978, p. 63).
Lely was immensely literate in artistic styles and traditions. He put together one of the most comprehensive collections of old master drawings ever formed, and owned notable old master pictures, particularly Venetian works, including examples by, or then attributed to, Giorgione, Tintoretto, and Veronese. The ultimate debt to Titian in the Chiddingstone picture is clear and would not have been lost on King Charles II who was acutely aware of his father's collecting and patronage, and in particular with van Dyck's artistic antecedents; Lely briefly owned van Dyck's Cupid and Psyche (Royal Collection), in which Psyche reclines in a strikingly similar pose (in reverse). We are very grateful to Diana Dethloff for bringing to our attention a reference to Lely placing a 'Naked woman and a cupid' by the Dutch artist Dirk Freres (a picture which, according to Roger North, Lely's executor, was directly inspired by a drawing of the same subject in Lely's collection), over the chimney in the 'main middle room' in his Covent Garden house (D. Dethloff, 'The Executors' Account Book and the Dispersal of Sir Peter Lely's Collection', Journal of the History of Collections, 8, 1996, no. 1). Diana Dethloff also notes a 'Venus and Cupid whole figure, in a Landskip' by Paris Bordone in Lely's possession (reproduced in 'Sir Peter Lely's Collection', The Burlington Magazine, LXXXIII, August 1943, pl. B).
While the pictorial sources for the composition are clear, as a portrait such a presentation by a leading artist may be unprecedented in British art. The reclining full-length of Lady Cullen, flaunting her total nakedness, appears from reproduction to be of studio quality, the head based on the half-length by Lely of the sitter, in conventional dress, at Kingston Lacy.
The Chiddingstone picture has credible claim to being the second of the two pictures described in the 1688 inventory as 'By Danckers [and] Sr Peter Lely. Being the Slideing Piece before Madam Gwynn's Picture naked with a Cupid'; certainly no other candidate (in original or copy) is known. Hendrik Dankerts was a landscape and topographical painter, born and trained in the Hague. He spent time in London in the 1660s and 1670s and undertook numerous royal commissions, several of which were large enough to conceal the Chiddingstone picture.
This probable connection is the strongest argument for the sitter being Nell Gwyn. The child must be one or two years old which, if it were one of her sons, would date the picture into the 1670s - too late on stylistic grounds. Yet, while it has often been suggested that the child is the sitter's son, the inventory reference is to 'a cupid', and the attitude and features of the child are not obviously those of a specific portrait. In any case, it is questionable whether any woman would have wanted her own child to be included in such a picture. At the same time, both Villiers and Gwyn were relatively 'early' mistresses of King Charles II and, given the picture would have been kept very discreetly, it remains possible that twenty years later the identity of the sitter was confused, particularly as Gwyn had gained something of a folk following.
In the Buckingham House inventory of 1746 the picture is recorded in the Saloon simply as 'A naked Lady and son Lely'. Vertue is rather more expansive, or perhaps imaginative, recording it there as 'Nell Guin naked leaning on a bed. with her Child by Sr. Peter Lilly. this picture was painted at the express command of K. Charles 2d. nay he came to Sr Peter Lillys house to see it painted. when she was naked on purpose. afterwards this picture was at Court. where the Duke of Buckingham took it from, (when K. James went away,) as many others did the like.'
William Lowther, 2nd Earl of Lonsdale (1787-1872), inherited a substantial collection of pictures, including the portraits of several branches of the Lowther family, and the major group of old masters formed by James, 1st Earl of Lonsdale (1736-1802), of whom his father, William (for whom the earldom was revived in 1807), was the heir. Lonsdale formed a major collection of French furniture and pictures, and also bought antiquities. His collection was arranged at Lowther Castle, rebuilt on an expensive scale by Smirke for his father. The best account of the 2nd Earl is that of Reginald, 2nd Viscount Esher (Cloud Capp'd Towers, chapter 1).
When sold at Sotheby's in 1950, the sitter was identified as Barbara Villiers, but it was always the conviction of the purchaser at that sale - Denys Bower - that the sitter is Nell Gwyn. David Piper argued in 1963 (op. cit.) that the Duchess of Cleveland also has 'claims as candidate for the sitter', while Sir Oliver Millar, in the 1978 exhibition catalogue (op. cit.), commented on the similarity of features between the sitter and those of Villiers in a full-length portrait, the prototype of which is probably that at Knole (National Trust, The Sackville Collection, see fig. 4). The likeness seems clear, yet, as Millar recorded, a contemporary wrote rather dismissively 'Sir Peter Lilly when he painted the Dutchess of Clevelands picture, he put something of Clevelands face as her Languishing Eyes in every one Picture, so that all his pictures had an Air one of another, all the Eyes were Sleepy alike'. Considerations of hair colour are fraught with difficulty because the accepted images in colour of Gwyn are so limited, but hers is generally thought to have been a lightish brown, while the hair of the girl in the Chiddingstone picture is relatively dark, and certainly close in tone to that of Villiers.
A precise dating of the picture could of course be a key factor in suggesting the sitter. It was the late Sir Oliver Millar's opinion that, on stylistic grounds, the picture is likely to date from the late 1660s. On this basis, it could coincide with the arrival of the young Nell Gwyn at court. Certainly the woman depicted is young, too young to be the mother of four or five children, as Barbara Villiers, by the late 1660s, was. Yet, for such a subject, how else would a royal mistress be painted? Had Lely, in the late 1660s, painted his greatest muse and promoter in such a manner, would he not have idealised her appearance? Any significantly earlier dating of the picture would of course preclude the possibility of it being Gwyn.
Another factor which may one day help date the picture is further research into Prosper Henry Lankrink (Antwerp ?1628-1692 London), who was, according to Buckeridge, employed by Lely 'in painting the grounds, landskips, flowers, ornaments, and sometimes the draperies of those pictures he intended to gain esteem by'. Few works by Lankrink can be securely identified but should he have painted the landscape in the Chiddingstone picture, it would be interesting were his arrival date in London (currently thought to be in the mid-1660s) to be further refined.
An early copy of the picture, in gouache on vellum and measuring 8½ x 10 in., in a private English collection, has had the names of both Villiers and Gwyn attached to it. This work may be by Richard Gibson, who is known to have copied portraits of Villiers for the king. Larger copies in oil include a picture in a private English collection, and a work in the Army & Navy Club, London. The latter includes a pair of doves to the left, and a quiver and bow lower right, reinforcing the imagery of Venus and Cupid.
Denys Bower was born in 1905 in the village of Crich in Derbyshire. His father and grandfather worked for the old railway, of which his grandfather was a director and pioneer of the metric system. It was a collectors' household: his father collected Chinese porcelain, his brother was an expert on Pinxton ware, and as a child Bower himself collected stamps. On leaving school at seventeen, he joined the Midland Bank, and concentrated his collecting on four areas: Buddhism, Egyptian antiquities (inspired by the Tutankhamen discoveries, he sought advice from Sir Flinders Petrie), Stuart and Jacobite history (he was enthralled by the activities of the Young Pretender in Derbyshire) and, above all, Japanese swords and lacquer. After twenty years he married, left the bank, and moved to London, where he established a specialist Oriental gallery in Baker Street, and lived in a Georgian house in Portman Square, where he set out his collections. After twelve years of dealing and collecting, financial pressures forced him to sell his house and gallery, and he decided to move out of London. At Whitsun 1956 he opened Chiddingstone Castle, the ancestral seat of the Streatfield family, near Edenbridge in Kent, to the public. After an unfortunate incident the following year with a girlfriend who posed as a French countess, during which he shot and wounded both her and himself, he spent five years in prison. When Bower died in 1977, he bequeathed the Castle and its collections - including the finest collection of early Japanese lacquer in the country and important antiquities - to the National Trust, who declined the gift due to the lack of an endowment fund which made it financially unviable. Since 1985 the Castle has been run by an independent charitable trust. All proceeds from the sale of the picture will be invested in re-opening the Castle to the public and establishing an endowment fund in order to provide a future for the Castle and its collections.