A Mania For Nymphs

Peter Lely's underrated pastorals and mythologies are erotic delights for the connoisseur

Michael Prodger

Peter Lely is best known for his portraits of the silky-haired rakes and bulging-eyed beauties who surrounded Charles II and gave the Restoration court its licentious glamour. The portraits are also the reason why he is frequently ignored. Not only are they numerous but they are remarkably similar. The poet Dryden said that Lely “drew many graceful pictures, but few of them were like” while a certain “Mr Walker the Painter swore Lilly’s pictures was all Brothers & Sisters.” The reasons for his uniformity and ubiquity are that he based his faces on an ideal (which he found in the features of Charles II’s mistress Barbara Villiers, Lady Castlemaine) and that he was both prolific in his own right and had a large workshop that turned out “Lelys” by the score. At the time of his death, for example, there were no fewer than 17 versions of his portrait of Charles II left in his studio.

There was more to Lely, though, than simply faces. Like his great predecessors Holbein and van Dyck, Lely was a foreigner. Born Pieter van der Faes in Westphalia in 1618 to Dutch parents, he took his name from the lily carved into the gable of his father’s family house in The Hague. He trained in Haarlem before moving to England in the early 1640s, possibly arriving in the wake of Prince William of Orange, who married Princess Mary in 1641, but he was certainly in London by 1643 when he set himself up as a dealer as well as an artist. 

It was both a propitious and unpropitious moment. Of the leading painters, van Dyck died in 1641 and William Dobson in 1646, leaving a vacancy for a portraitist of talent. It was also an unstable time; by 1643 the Civil Wars had started and Charles I had moved the court to Oxford. It was in these contradictory circumstances that Lely sought to establish himself. Like most continental artists his initial ambition was to become a “subject painter” and on his arrival he continued to paint mythologies, pastorals and religious pictures with which to attract patrons. Although they had admirers it was his portraits that proved most popular and Lely’s fate as an artist was sealed. 

Writing in the 18th century Horace Walpole pointed out that “few of [Lely’s] historic pieces are known”. The same is true now. It is to correct this oversight and show a more rounded version of the artist that the Courtauld Gallery is exhibiting a choice selection of these forgotten paintings (Peter Lely: A Lyrical Vision, October 11 to January 13) — a fascinating counterpoint to his career as the chronicler of turbulent times. As he painted Charles I, Oliver Cromwell (it was to Lely that the Lord Protector said he wanted to be painted “pimples, warts and every thing as you see me”) and Charles II, he also worked on images of Arcadia.

Ironically, given England’s reputation for artistic philistinism, it was in London that Lely formed his style because it was here that he saw for the first time the great Venetian pastorals by Titian, Giorgione and Veronese that had recently been purchased by collectors such as the Earl of Arundel, the Duke of Buckingham, the Earl of Northumberland and the Royal Family. He also had the opportunity to study a significant later variation on the manner when he bought van Dyck’s melting landscape mythology Cupid and Psyche in “the sale of the late King’s goods” that dispersed Charles I’s collection after his execution. 

Paintings such as A Pair of Lovers in a Landscape, c.1643, and The Rape of Europa from the early 1650s, are exercises for connoisseurs. They are rich in both classical allusions — temples, grottoes, references to Ovid — and a pervasive eroticism. Walpole captured their mood perfectly: “His nymphs trail fringes and embroidery through meadows and purling streams.” His pictures of musicians such as A Man Playing a Pipe, c.1648, are a direct reference to his Netherlandish roots and the work of the Utrecht painters Hendrick ter Brugghen and Gerrit von Honthorst. In The Concert, c.1650, he combined both themes: it is an allegory of love and music in which he included a self-portrait as the viol player surrounded by musicians and court beauties in various states of undress. 

The most beautiful of all, though, is Nymphs by a Fountain, c.1654, in which five exhausted women sleep hugger-mugger in a Gainsboroughesque landscape. In their different poses Lely managed to show the nude in 360 degrees. The picture, a ravishing image of sensual lassitude, was owned by Dulwich College where the masters kept it under lock and key “for fear it should injure the morals of the boys”. It might have too. 

Lely clearly understood that difficult times called for alluring pastorals and painted some 35 such subject pictures: the fact that he produced several versions of some of them is evidence that they had an appreciative audience, one that this excellent exhibition will resuscitate. 

The Stuart dynasty is also the focus of the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, in this instance Henry, Prince of Wales, the eldest son of James I, who, had he lived, would have been king rather than his hapless brother Charles I. Henry, handsome, intelligent and cultured — a true Renaissance prince — was the first male heir apparent in England for more than 50 years and was the great hope for Protestantism. His promise did not reach fruition: he died aged 18 in 1612 leaving his countrymen “passionately bewailing so great a losse”. 

The Lost Prince brings together not just paintings and drawings of Henry by the likes of Nicholas Hilliard, Isaac Oliver and Robert Peake but artefacts associated with him including armour, masque designs by Inigo Jones and poems by Ben Jonson in his own hand. They are the remains of a short-lived golden age of patronage and as well as numbering objects of real beauty are a testament to one of English history’s great what might have beens.

An autumn note

“For many, the end of this uneasy year cannot come quickly enough”

An ordinary killing

Ian Cobain’s book uses the killing of Millar McAllister to paint a meticulous portrait of the Troubles

Greater—not wiser

John Mullan elucidates the genius of Charles Dickens
Search