A History of Art in England (17): Beyond the Beauties

To start with an update: a huge thank you to Lydia Hamlett who has sent us the self-portrait that Antonio Verrio included in the vast Heaven Room wall-painting at Burghley House (see Rambling no.16).

Rambling 1

And it is a perfect beginning: it suggests something rather interesting about how we might look at Restoration portraiture. For, whilst we might see Verrio’s self-portrait as a ‘documentary’ record of himself, he portrays himself within the drama of the scene at hand (he is at Vulcan’s forge). He is both a ‘real person’ as the artist responsible for the work and a ‘character’ within the spectacle of the story – blurring the boundaries of reality and fiction as was so fundamental to Baroque art at its most spectacular.

This blurring, one suspects, was part and parcel of the culture of the Restoration court; its way of seeing itself.


Rambling 2

Sir Peter Lely: Self-Portrait [1660; National Portrait Gallery]

Through to the end of the 17th century, portraiture continues to dominate, indeed it seems there was an avalanche of portrait production, especially in workshops associated with the court. Often, as is the case with Peter Lely (1618-1680) who became Principal Painter in Ordinary to Charles II in 1661, the demand was so great that whilst he painted the ‘heads’, his colleagues and pupils completed the rest of the portrait to set designs.

The most famous paintings by Lely are probably the Windsor Beauties, although in “An Introduction to English Painting” our guide John Rothenstein is less than convinced:

“In undertaking the Windsor Beauties Lely was not free to pursue the perfection of his art, instead he was compelled not only to flatter, but in deference to the taste of the Court, to emphasise the sensual aspect of his sitters […which is] deleterious to portraiture, for since the end of that art is the rendering of individual character…   the exaggeration of a characteristic that is common to a great part of mankind is inevitably detrimental.”

Left: Portrait of Frances Theresa Stuart (Duchess of Richmond and Lennox, 1648-1702) as Diana [1662; Royal Collection]

Right: Portrait of Barbara Villiers (1st Duchess of Cleveland; 1641-1709) as Minerva [1665; Royal Collection]

They are portrayals of sensuality rather than of individuals, Rothenstein concludes, following apparently in the steps of diarist Samuel Pepys who declared the portraits ‘not like’ their supposed sitters!

Inevitably, having been painted and displayed in an environment as decadent and libertine as the court of Charles II and to include a portrait of Barbara Villiers, the king’s mistress, the portraits are seen as akin to a beauty pageant (or even ‘pin-ups’; they were utterly scandalous to the Victorians).

Rambling 5

Portrait of Anne Hyde [Duchess of York, 1637-71) [1662; Royal Collection]

Yet, as Brett Dolman writes, this is rather unfair to both the artist and the sitters, for
The ten portraits in fact represent not royal mistresses, but some of the closest friends of Charles II’s sister-in-law, Anne Hyde, Duchess of York, and were collected by Anne for display originally in her apartments at St James’s Palace.

The Windsor Beauties then were paintings commissioned by a woman of her women friends.

They were, Dolman continues, “a fashion statement of cultural sophistication” done in the sleepy-eyed-pose-and-loose-fitting-robes-style of the day.

Might we see the portraits as recording a friendship group and their shared enjoyment of the exuberant, fictional, fashionable Baroque culture? This would undermine Rothenstein’s way of seeing, his expectation that portraits should reveal an individual’s character.

Instead we have that ‘crossing-boundaries’ aspect of the Baroque between ‘reality’ and ‘fiction’ (indeed the ‘individual’ and ‘communal’). I have a whimsical idea that we might view the portraits not as individual paintings, or even an individual series, but within the context of Verrio’s wall-paintings; all part of the theatricality.


The Windsor Beauties keep us very much within the inner sanctum of court life. However, there is a sense that, as we reach the turn of the 17th century, art is expanding and opening up.

Godfrey Kneller had settled in England in 1674 and would follow Lely as Principal Painter in Ordinary to Charles II. His most famous paintings are probably the Kit-Kat Club portraits.
The Kit-Kat Club was an early 18th-century English club in London with strong political and literary associations, committed to the furtherance of Whig objectives (ie. against absolute monarchy, for parliament and in support of the Glorious Revolution in which William and Mary were invited to take the throne in 1688), meeting at the Trumpet tavern in London, and at Water Oakley in the Berkshire countryside.

Kneller, Godfrey, 1646-1723; Sir John Vanbrugh

Sir John Vanbrugh (1664-1726) [1705, National Portrait Gallery]

Now at the National Portrait Gallery, what is so interesting about these is that although they continue to depict princes, earls and lords in the main (‘men of power’), they also include portraits of figures such as the architect John Vanbrugh, the dramatist William Congreve and poet Joseph Addison, thus recording a turn in art’s almost exclusive focus on court life to the intellectual, creative and cultural life of society.

Mary Beale’s works lead us even further away. Her’s is a fascinating story – a woman whose artistic skills supported her family, and there is a brilliant self-portrait in which she is holding a canvas (portraits of her two sons) as exemplar of her work, a palette on the wall behind:

Beale, Mary, 1633-1699; Mary Beale

Mary Beale (1633–1699) [1666; National Portrait Gallery, artuk.org]

And although she had connections to the upper echelons of society, her work also reflects to expansion of the fashion for portraiture – her commissions are often friends of friends, many of her sitters are of the clergy [see artuk.org]

Moreover – and I think most importantly – she painted her family.

Rothenstein dismisses Mary Beale as a minor artist of “dull and spiritless” work, yet the portrait of her husband Charles (1632-1705) is – I think at least – full of extraordinary character; an ‘ordinary’ man painted by an artist who’s way of seeing is far removed from Baroque flamboyance.

Beale, Mary, 1633-1699; Charles Beale (1632-1705)
We might also note the artist John Riley (1646-1691), not for his work alongside Kneller at court but, as Rothenstein notes, for painting some of the few pre-eighteenth century portraits of working class people.

Rambling 8

Bridget Holmes (1591-1691) [1686; Royal Collection]

Bridget Holmes, shown here at the reputed age of 96, was James II’s ‘Necessary Woman’, responsible for cleaning and preparing the royal bedchamber, polishing and dusting fragile furniture and, with the assistance of other servants, laying fires, mopping and sweeping, and emptying and cleaning chamber pots and close stool pans.

The Royal Collection also has John Riley’s portrait of Katherine Elliot (d. 1688) was James II nurse who became dresser to both his wives and at Christ Church, Oxford is Riley’s “Scullion” as discussed by Tom Lubbock.

scullion of church.tif


As we enter the new century and the early decades of the Georgian Age then, the landscape of art – style, subject matter, ways of seeing as well as the role and position of artists – is changing and expanding.


Portrait of Sir John Rothenstein C.B.E. 1938 by Sir William Rothenstein 1872-1945

A History of Art in England (17)

If you are enjoying this series and are able – even occasionally – to donate, I am extremely grateful. Many thanks and best wishes!


About TheCommonViewer

Independent Researcher: gently exploring the art and artists of early 20th century Britain (with forays elsewhere, in particular Russian Art History); the Art, Books & History Group meets monthly in Southend-on-Sea Twitter: @TheCommonViewer

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