Sir Peter Lely (1618-80)
Anne Killigrew was perhaps the most celebrated female English prodigy of the seventeenth century...
This important painting is thought to be the only portrait by Lely to show a sitter in the act of painting and is a rare depiction of a female artist at work in seventeenth-century England. Conservation by Philip Mould & Co. has revealed that the picture had been substantially over-painted by a later restorer. Now that these later additions have been removed, the picture’s underlying quality can be revealed once more and the work will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of Lely’s work, currently being compiled by Catharine MacLeod and Diana Dethloff.
The sitter has been traditionally identified as Anne Killigrew, perhaps the most celebrated female English prodigy of the seventeenth century. Here, a young genteel lady is shown in the act of painting a small portrait which she holds in her hands, along with a small paint brush. On the table in front of her we see an Old Master head and shoulders drawing of a man, which may be the same head she is holding. It is possible that Killigrew enjoyed access to Lely’s renowned collection of Old Master paintings and drawings.
A poet and artist of great repute, Killigrew died of smallpox at ‘about the age of 25’ (according to the antiquarian Anthony Wood writing in the 1690s), prompting the Poet Laureate John Dryden, among others, to pen one of his best known homilies; “to the accomplished young Lady… excellent in the Two sister-arts of Poesy and Painting”.
Unfortunately, little is known of Killigrew’s artistic and literary upbringing. We do not even know for sure which year she was born, with Wood saying only that it was ‘in the latter end of the times of usurpation, a little before the restoration of king Charles II…’ A daughter of a staunchly Royalist Chaplain, and niece of the roguish playwright Thomas Killigrew, we can assume that she had access to a classical education, and was immersed from an early age in an artistic milieu. Her artistic influences must stem from her time at court. In 1683 she is listed as being one of Mary of Modena’s (wife of James II) six maids of honour and, given her many links to the Royal Household, she was doubtless able to study at length the Royal art collection. Only three paintings by Killigrew are known to survive, ‘Venus Attired by the Graces’ is the largest and most significant and is now in the collection of Falmouth Art Gallery (having formerly been with Philip Mould & Co.). The two other works are a Self-portrait [at Berkeley Castle] and a Portrait of James II [in the Royal Collection] and are both small full-lengths.
John Dryden, in his Ode to Killigrew’s memory, describes her painting as nothing less than an incredible adjunct to her literary skill, “one would have thought, she should have been content” with her poetic endeavours, he wrote;
“But what can young ambitious souls confine?
To the next realm she stretched her sway,
For Painture near adjoining lay…”
It was claimed after her death that Killigrew was fluent in Latin and Greek. The few details we do know of her life come from her poems, which have become well known for their classical elegance, and betray an accomplishment well beyond her years. Her collected poems were published soon after her death and quickly established her literary reputation.