Last week I took a couple of days off to walk down the Thames from Windsor Castle to Hampton Court in order to visit the palaces. My excuse was that I had been working over the previous few weekends and that I wanted to brush up on my knowledge of Tudor and Stuart paintings while getting a bit of spring sunshine. Almost exactly twenty miles and two hundred years separate the painting of the Tudor Prince Henry and the Earl of Essex of 1504 at Windsor from the accession of Queen Anne whom Sir Godfrey Kneller painted while still a princess at Hampton Court. Along the way I counted more than 30 different species of birds, nearly a dozen different kinds of tree and as many spring flowers as I could wave the guide-book at. And yes- since you ask – the weather was perfect.
The painting that struck me most at Windsor was Titian’s The Lovers, perhaps the most erotic threesome in all of western art and an interesting comparison to Vermeer’s The Procuress in Dresden. They can be seen here and here.
As a representation of a woman, no greater contrast can be found to these than Artemisia Gentileschi’s Self-Portrait as The Allegory of Painting at Hampton Court. The artist sets out her stall: demonstrating her ability to convey fore-shortening and to create light and dark tones from the three colours that she holds on her palette. Her outstretched arms emphasise the triangle that her torso occupies in the top half of the painting. She then seems to use the length of its hypotenuse to determine the width of the darker background to the right and the height of the memento mori pendant that she wears from the bottom of the canvas. I remember how much this demonstration of the golden section impressed me when I first saw the painting on an earlier visit last year. Yet, even before I took the train back to London from Staines at the end of the first day, I knew that what I was looking forward to most was revisiting the series of portraits known as ‘the Windsor Beauties’, which Sir Peter Lely painted after the Restoration. Somewhat surprisingly, these are reputed to have been intended to hang in the bedroom of Catherine of Braganza, Charles II’s queen, at Windsor but are now shown in one of the corridors at Hampton Court. A hundred years later Queen Mary commissioned Kneller to paint another series of female portraits, the ‘Hampton Court Beauties’, in homage to them. The portrait of her sister, then Princess Anne, was based directly on Lely’s portrait of the Countess of Rochester shown below.
Lely’s work at the Stuart court is sometimes overlooked in comparison to that of his fellow Flemish artists Rubens and Van Dyck. Yet not only was his brushwork as sensuous as that of any other artist to have picked up a paintbrush in England but he also seems to have been a shrewd operator. When the newly-restored Charles II asked his subjects to return items from the collection that had been auctioned off after his father’s execution Lely gave back the pictures that he had purchased within a week. Although we do not know exactly what these comprised – a Raphael had been valued at £20,000 and a Rembrandt at £4 – the gesture must have been useful in attracting further aristocratic commissions. The Windsor Beauties are, perhaps, the most dazzling of these commissions. Admittedly, he shows little interest in describing the character of the sitters. Each is presented in the same shimmering costume of light blue or gold or orange. There are a few token references to antiquity and the seasons. Hence one of the ladies holds a spear and wears a helmet; another stands in front of a pillar and a third feigns a rather unconvincing interest in an armful of fruit. Yet what Lely loses in terms of characterisation, he makes up for in the sheer beauty of his conception.
Sometimes the women dash in from left or right like the Renaissance angels whom they closely resemble. Elsewhere they make vague gestures towards the half-lit landscape as if indicating the uncertain future that was to befall the Stuarts after the childless Catherine’s death. Lely does what he wants with colour, rhyming the flesh tones of the Countess of Rochester’s skin to the purple robe behind her. He is brilliant at depicting the same few items of jewellery, which he probably handed out to the ladies as props. He is also great at knowing when a sitter’s neck might be a little too thick to wear a string of pearls or when a bit of décolletage might distract from a larger woman’s weight.
No wonder Lely’s sitters queued up to join the party. The comparison to Andy Warhol’s portraits is irresistible. Like Warhol – or for that matter Utamaro – it does not matter if Jackie Kennedy’s smile looks a bit like Marilyn’s or Liz Taylor wears the same make-up as Liza Minnelli. It would be like complaining that the eyebrows of the Three Beauties of the Present Day appear a little similar. What his sitters must have been most interested in was their inclusion in the gang.
I came across Lely again on Saturday when I accompanied a group of OCA students to the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Interestingly, two of his portraits of women were hung next to Gainsborough’s painting of the Linley sisters. The latter were well-known singers and the daughters of a composer who was a friend of the artist in Bath. Elizabeth, who was the older sister and is shown in blue, ran off with the playwright, Sheridan who fought a duel on her behalf. The ease and intimacy of the portrait and the delightful use of colours and textures seem to suggest Gainsborough’s admiration for Lely as much as his better-known debt to Van Dyck.
As for Sir Joshua Reynolds, it is tempting to suggest that the Windsor Beauties may have influenced him in his choice of plinths and pillars for his neo-classical armoury. Reynolds used such props in a heavy-handed way that revealed his admiration for the classical modes or ‘tones of voice’ of the antique. In this way he portrayed Mrs Siddons in a rather forbidding portrait as The Muse of Tragedy at Dulwich in the ‘firm and severe’ Dorian mode rather than in the more playful Ionic mode that Reynolds believed more suited to scenes of dances and bacchanalia. In contrast, Lely seems to have been blissfully uninhibited by a sense of decorum or a serious programmatic approach to art. The Duchess of Cleveland may be carrying a spear but she seems as little likely to use it as one of those statuesque pin-ups that appear in 1940’s postcards from The Windmill.
At the end of my visit to Hampton Court I went in search of my own pin-ups in the Gift Shop. Yet to my surprise, not only were there no reproductions of paintings other than that of Henry VIII but there few photographs of any women in the royal family other than the Queen and Princess Anne. Instead I was offered a wide choice of postcards of the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Charles, Prince William and Harry all wearing a range of different military uniforms. But then what did I expect? After all those cases of armour let alone the swaggering portrait of Prince Henry and the Earl of Essex at Windsor I suppose I should have known better. Perhaps, Lely’s portrait of the Duchess of Cleveland was just telling us what your average Restoration courtier liked.
To see a wider selection of the portraits by Lely at Hampton Court visit here.