This newly discovered contemporaneous portrait, is the only portrait of Nell to allude so graphically and satirically to her position at court...
‘Pretty witty Nell’ was, according to Samuel Pepys, ‘brought up in a bawdy-house to fill strong water to the guests.’ That she became Charles II’s most famous mistresses is testament to her achievement in overturning convention, taste and class rigidity in a court system famed for its inflexibility. Though she admittedly became the priapic King’s mistress at a time when ‘whoreing was in fashion’ – as she herself reportedly put it – Gwyn helped establish the acceptability of mistresses amongst royalty (a tradition which some might say has never entirely been discarded). Known as ‘The Protestant Whore’, Nell bore the King two children, the Duke of St Albans and Lord Beauclerk, and died in her mid-thirties, probably at the age of 36.
Nell’s iconography is notoriously confused. Her increasing fame, particularly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, often saw portraits of innocent ancestresses transformed, merely with a new label, into the most famous mistress in British history. In reality, however, there were relatively few portraits of Gwyn painted during her lifetime. Her fame as an untitled courtesan of lowly status did not translate amongst her contemporaries into a desire to hang her portrait on their walls. There were, for example, no portraits of Gwyn in Lely’s posthumous studio sale – but there were thirteen of Charles II’s more noble mistress, Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland.
This newly discovered portrait, however, stands out from the usual canon of mis-identified ‘Nell Gwyns’. The likeness is taken directly from a now lost miniature of Nell, which is known through engravings as a work by Samuel Cooper, but which might also have originally been by Sir Peter Lely. Furthermore, the portrait has until recently descended in the collection of her descendants. This is also the most sexually revealing portrait of Nell. Painted in about the 1670s, it is the only portrait of Nell to allude so graphically and satirically to her position at court. First, she is shown with exposed breasts, a well understood sign that the sitter was a mistress. Second, she is shown washing sausages, an obvious and long-used sexual allusion, which can even be found even in paintings by Pieter Brueghel the Elder. That Nell is shown in virginal white would have been recognisable to contemporary viewers as a humorous view of her ‘purity’. The sumptuous setting of the portrait, with a Turkey carpet, silver salvers, elaborate columns and a black servant allude to the exalted position given to this otherwise un-exalted sitter by Charles II and his court. The black servant might in fact be intended to have a more direct association with Charles II, given the king’s often remarked upon dark complexion. When he was born, Charles’s mother, Henrietta Maria, wrote to her sister-in-law jokingly that she had given birth to a black baby, while to a friend in France she wrote that Charles was ‘so dark that she was ashamed of him’. During the Civil War, parliamentary ‘wanted’ posters offered a reward for Charles’ capture, describing him as a ‘tall, black man’, while later, in the anti-Popish plotting of the 1670s (at about the time this picture was painted) rumours were circulated that the King was in fact the illegitimate son of a ‘black Scotsman’, and he was often referred to as the ‘black bastard’. It is not impossible, therefore, that the black servant in the present portrait is meant to be an allusion to Nell’s control over Charles, and his infatuation on her.