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Painted Ladies: Women at the Court of Charles II
National Portrait Gallery


In October I went to the National Portrait Gallery to see the exhibition Painted Ladies: Woman at the Court of Charles II; called by one critic "Charles Angels"! Sir Peter Lely (Pieter van der Faes) painted the majority of the portraits 1618-80. He was a Dutch painter who settled in London and painted court portraits. He undoubtedly is the star of this exhibition. The exhibition tells a fascinating story of mistresses, morals and women who were part of the King's court. In the final room was a filthy poem by Rochester underlining the point. The women were all dressed provocatively - probably in competition to catch the King's eye. Diana Kirke, who showed her pert breast above her golden dress proved a shade too pert for London Underground, so they banned the advertising poster for their walls!The supposedly virtuous Frances Stuart was, according to the diarist John Evelyn, long pursued by the King. She had kept him off so long, though he had more liberty than any other had, or he ought to have, as to dalliance. John Evelyn referred to them as, "celebrated mistresses and illustrious strumpets. . . as have debauched Great Princes and have contributed more perhaps to the Ruin of this Kingdom than all the Warrs, Fires, Plagues and Plots which happened. " Also shown are the unassailable Elizabeth Butler and the rather more assailable Jane Needham. Of the gorgeous Elizabeth Hamilton, her brother said, "Lely admitted he had enjoyed painting it; the Duke of York enjoyed looking at it and once again ogling the original. " There were also the actresses Peg Hughes, Mary Davis, and Nell Gwynn. Charles II called Nell "Pretty Witty Nell" and I think she was perhaps Charles' best-loved mistress because she was good-natured without pretensions; she said she was quite happy to have oxen pull her carriage - she didn't need horses!! Nell (1650-87) was often known as "Nell of Old Drury"; she was an orange seller in London's Drury Lane where Charles is said to have met her, but it is more likely that he met her at Drury Lane theatre where she was an actress and comedienne. She bore the King two sons, one of which became the Duke of St Albans. On his deathbed the King said, "Don't let poor Nellie starve", as he always looked after his mistresses financially even after passion was spent. Charles (1630-85) was actually a good king who did much to promote the development of he navy. He had 17 mistresses before he ascended the throne in 1660 and countless more afterwards. He also had 14 illegitimate children. Two sections of the exhibit are devoted to Barbara Villiers, his mistress of the 1660s, whom he made Duchess of Cleveland. (She never quite lost hold over Charles even when he no loner desired her bed. She bore him 5 bastards; in fact, she is said to have held one of her sons out of a window and threatened to throw him to the ground if Charles did not give her a title. She got the title!!!)Barbara Villiers was the one who got the French role of the royal maitresse en titre - recognised or official mistress - her relationship with the King ennobling her; she developed a degree of political influence and amassed considerable wealth. The second section is devoted to Louise de Keroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth, who succeeded Barbara Villiers in the 1670s. Charles' Queen, Catherine of Braganza, along with Anne Hyde and Mary of Medena (the two wives of Charles' brother- the Duke of York) also figure prominently. There are also some fine portraits by Dick Stoop of the young Queen Catherine and some portraits by Michale White of an ample Barbara Villiers as a shepherdess. All these ladies, ringletted, dishabille and besilked, worldly and hedonistic show far more character and individuality than we would perhaps give them credit for. They fix us with a calm, knowingly seductive gaze with their bared shoulders, pouting lips, glowing cheeks, and marbled flesh. No wonder Lely enjoyed himself!   ". . . Next, when I cast mine eyes and see   That brave vibration each way free   O how that glittering taketh me. "

Lely described the paintings as "Good, but not like". It would today, be said to be a case of, "if you've got it; flaunt it!"

The Restoration period also spawned much apt poetry. As Dryden said:     "We live in such an age   When no man dies for love, but on the stage. "

He also remarked, regarding fashionableness: "Nor is the people's judgement always true  The most may err as grossly as the few. "

And Darlings, do not forget that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder!"

 

Verinha Ottoni.




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