Richard Gibson (1615-90)
The present work is a particularly fine example of Gibson’s talented hand – the thickly-applied paint used in a confident manner but modified for details such as the fine lace cravat...
Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland was the favourite mistress of Charles II between 1660-72, and one of the most prominent and influential women of the early Restoration period.
Villiers’s rise to prominence was quick and determined. Her father, the Royalist William Villiers, 2nd Viscount Grandison (1614-43), died during the English Civil War, and by 1656 she was in London as mistress to Philip Stanhope, 2nd Earl of Chesterfield. Villiers was by all accounts beautiful, although her family’s straitened circumstances probably prevented a union with Chesterfield, and in 1659 she married Roger Palmer (1634-1705), a Catholic lawyer. Despite being married to Palmer, Villiers turned her attention to King Charles II, and although it is not known for certain when or where they first met, nine months after he arrived in England to reclaim the throne, Villiers gave birth to their first child Anne. They would have a further five children together, although not all were acknowledged by Charles as his own.
Villiers was now a mistress of the King and in late 1661 Charles, aware of her need for acceptance within court circles, made her husband Baron Limerick and earl of Castlemaine, with the proviso that only the male heirs born by Villiers could inherit the title. As countess of Castlemaine, Villiers’ position at court was secured, and when Catherine of Braganza arrived in May 1662, she also shrewdly insisted she be made Lady of the Bedchamber.
Although Castlemaine maintained considerable influence over Charles, her position was constantly threatened by other women vying for the King’s attention; during the 1660s her main rivals were Frances Stuart, later Duchess of Richmond, maid of honour to Catherine of Braganza, and the actress Mary (‘Moll’) Davis. Despite her jealously, which would boldly manifest itself at court gatherings, Castlemaine supposedly embarked on a number of romantic liaisons of her own, including with the actor Charles Hart and John Churchill, later Duke of Marlborough.
In 1670 Castlemaine was created Baroness Nonsuch, countess of Southampton and duchess of Cleveland in her own right. This was a reward for her services but also a compensation for retirement; by the early 1670s her influence had been entirely supplanted by Louise de Kéroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth. Cleveland then travelled to Paris, returning to England in 1682 where she attempted, unsuccessfully, to re-establish herself at court. On the death of her husband Roger, Earl of Castlemaine in 1705, she married Major-General Robert Fielding, a bigamist who was jailed for threatening and maltreating his wife. Barbara died of dropsy at Chiswick on 9th October 1709.
Although Charles II had many mistresses, Barbara was the only one who mastered so comprehensively the art of self-promotion. She sat to a number of portrait painters throughout her life including Sir Peter Lely, Samuel Cooper, John Michael Wright and Henri Gascars, and her likeness was disseminated widely through copies produced in their studios. Many of her portraits were also engraved and sold as prints, satisfying the demand for her likeness amongst the middle-classes.
The present work was painted by Richard Gibson in c.1664-5, and derives from a three-quarter length portrait in oils by Sir Peter Lely of the same date, known in several versions. A portrait of Gibson, thought to be a copy of lost work by Lely, indicates the two artists were close friends, and Gibson may well have been introduced by Lely to clients wanting portable versions of a commissioned portraits. We know Charles II himself commissioned two small copies of Barbara’s likeness from Gibson in 1664, although given the prominence of the jewelled cross on Barbara’s dress (she converted to Catholicism in 1663), it seems unlikely, given Charles II was an Anglican, that our work was one of these.
Richard Gibson (known as ‘Dwarf Gibson’ in his circle), was born in Cumberland and worked as an apprentice in a tapestry works before entering the household of Philip Herbert 4th Earl of Pembroke. By 1639 he was employed in the court as a ‘Page of the Back-Stairs’, experiencing great popularity with the King. Through the catalogue of Abraham van der Doort, keeper of the royal collection, we know that by this point Gibson was actively painting, for the former recounts the artist copying ‘the Picture of Adonis Venus Cupid and some doggs by Peter Oliver after Titian’. Following Pembroke’s death, Gibson attached himself to Charles, 2nd Earl of Carnarvon, Pembroke’s grandson, and throughout the Interregnum painted many people of that circle including Lady Elizabeth Dormer [V&A] and Elizabeth, Countess of Carnarvon [Scottish National Portrait Gallery; exhibited at Philip Mould & Co ‘Warts and All’ 2013 no.37]. By the Restoration Gibson was tremendously successful and by the late 1660s he changed his signature from ‘DG’, for ‘Dwarf’ or maybe ‘Dick’ to ‘RG’ for Richard, a pertinent display of his new status. After Cooper’s death Gibson was pronounced the King’s Limner, however one year later was succeeded by Nicholas Dixon, and appointed drawing-master to the Duke of York’s daughters. Gibson had five surviving children by his wife Anne, including most notably Susannah-Penelope Rosse, a successful portrait miniaturist who, as well as painting copies of works by Samuel Cooper, also had a prestigious clientele of her own.
 The best recorded version in the collection at Swindon Museum & Art Gallery
 J. Murdoch, Seventeenth-century English miniatures in the Collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, (London, 1997), p.173