Studio of Sir Peter Lely (1618-80)
The Duke of York was so enamoured of Lady Robartes, whose ‘beauty was striking’, that he tried, unsuccessfully, to wrestle her from the arms of her ‘ill-humoured, awkward and cantankerous’ husband...
This wistful portrait depicting Lady Robartes, second wife of John Robartes, 1st Earl of Radnor, was painted in the studio of Sir Peter Lely and is typical of the flirtatious, lyrical approach to portraiture following the Restoration of Charles II.
Following the death of his first wife, Lady Lucy Rich, in 1647, Robartes consolidated his political connections by marrying her cousin Letitia Isabella Smith, daughter of Sir John Smith of Bidborough, Kent and Lady Isabella Rich, daughter of the 1st Earl of Warwick. Together they had nine children, four sons and five daughters. In the Civil War, Robartes fought for the Parliamentarians, but his moderate views ensured that he played a part in the transition from the protectorate to the restoration of the monarchy, and in due course was rewarded with an earldom.
The life of Lady Robartes is not well documented, although she is described in the Memoirs of Count Grammont as a beauty at the court of Charles II and a favourite of James, Duke of York (later James II).According to Grammont, the Duke of York was so enamoured of Lady Robartes, whose ‘beauty was striking’, that he tried, unsuccessfully, to wrestle her from the arms of her ‘ill-humoured, awkward and cantankerous’husband. This proved to be a hopeless cause, and despite the promise of revenues and illustrious titles, Lord Robartes stood firm. Following the death of her husband in 1685, Lady Robartes married Charles Cheyne, 1st Viscount Newhaven. She died on 17 July 1714 and was buried at Chelsea Old Church.
The head-on-hand pose we see here was by no means an innovation of Lely’s, although its application by him to the celebrated portrait of royal mistress Barbara Villiers c.1662 made it the archetypal composition associated with Restoration mistresses and court beauties. The design was most probably influenced by the popular depiction of the Penitent Magdalen established by artists such as Guido Reni (1575-1642), in which the saint is often shown in a melancholic state with long flowing hair. The pose was later used by a number of Lely’s competitors, including Jacob Huysmans (c.1630-96), Henry Anderton (1630-67) and John Michael Wright (1617-94).
 Count Grammont, Sir W. Scott ed., Memoirs of the Court of Charles II (London, 1908), p.170