It is unsurprising that of all Lely’s portraits of the mistresses of Charles II, the programme of those of Barbara Villiers is the most spectacular spectacular. The person and will of Lady Castlemaine dominated the Court for over a decade, reputedly from the night of the King’s coronation in 1661 until she was supplanted by Louise de Keroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth, in 1672. Her beauty captivated male society, and her portrait was a much-sought possession: Samuel Pepys remarked of a full-length by Lely recently acquired by his cousin and patron Lord Sandwich that it was a most blessed picture and one that I must have a copy of (Diary ii 368, iv 179). The painter himself said of her that it was beyond the compass of art to give this lady her due, as to her sweetness and exquisite beauty. An anonymous commentator can be excused the exaggeration when remarking that: Sir Peter Lilly when he had painted the Duchess...

Read more

It is unsurprising that of all Lely’s portraits of the mistresses of Charles II, the programme of those of Barbara Villiers is the most spectacular spectacular. The person and will of Lady Castlemaine dominated the Court for over a decade, reputedly from the night of the King’s coronation in 1661 until she was supplanted by Louise de Keroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth, in 1672. Her beauty captivated male society, and her portrait was a much-sought possession: Samuel Pepys remarked of a full-length by Lely recently acquired by his cousin and patron Lord Sandwich that it was a most blessed picture and one that I must have a copy of (Diary ii 368, iv 179). The painter himself said of her that it was beyond the compass of art to give this lady her due, as to her sweetness and exquisite beauty. An anonymous commentator can be excused the exaggeration when remarking that: Sir Peter Lilly when he had painted the Duchess of Cleveland’s picture, he put something of Cleveland’s face as her languishing Eyes into every one Picture, so that all his pictures had an air of one another, all the Eyes were Sleepy alike.

Neither courtesan nor painter intended these portraits merely as an exercise in likeness. Villiers was a determined if erratic politician, driven by purely personal concerns for her own and her offspring’s position. It is probable, for example, that the portraits produced by Lely and his circle showing the mistress as St Catherine were not merely pursuing a conventional taste for allegory, but were an implicit assault on the position of the new Queen Catherine of Braganza by usurping her name saint. In the present portrait, in what is surely an instance unique in seventeenth century British painting, the courtesan is shown as the Virgin and her illegitimate offspring as the child Christ. The pictorial programme, which suggests a close collaboration between painter and sitter is not without a certain humour.

An anecdote recorded by Horace Walpole (Aedes Walpolianae 1752 p.xvi) mentions that a version of this portrait was sent to a convent in France and used there as an altarpiece, until the order recognised the more wordly aspects of the portrait and returned it. No source before Walpole records this story, and it is not possible to say which version it concerns or whether it is even true.

The exact prototype for the pose is unknown, and the composition may well be an invention of the artist, although the debt to renaissance and later models - such as Van Dyck’s Rest on the Flight into Egypt c.1630 (Alte Pinacothek Munich) - is apparent. The wit of the painting lies in its balance of absurdity and dignity. Although the equation of a royal mistress with the Queen of Heaven might seem a matter only for low comedy, Lely’s treatment elevates the subject by producing one of his most compositionally satisfying portraits. The sitter’s gesture as she both indicates and almost supports the child with her right hand is achieved with considerable lightness and grace, and the tonal harmony of the draperies and background represents Lely at his most accomplished and serves to distinguish this prime version from the studio versions (National Portrait Gallery; Euston Hall) - in which this composition exists.

The particular allegorical game being played in this portrait was at once apparent to contemporaries. Charles Beale remarked in his diary in 1677 on seeing a version of this painting in the collection of Baptist May that it was a picture of the Dutches of Cleveland being as a Madonna & a babe. He does not record the child’s identity and until recently this has been a matter of dispute, with candidates such as Villiers’ daughter Charlotte and second son Henry being proposed. It is most probable, however, that the child is Charles Fitzroy, later Duke of Cleveland and Southampton, her first son by the King. The hairstyle is peculiar to boys rather than to girls during the 1660s, as is the state of near-nudity. The child’s age - as well as Barbara Villiers’ apparent pregnancy - would accord well with a date in 1663. Later in that year she gave birth to a further son, Henry, created Duke of Grafton. It may be that Villiers was particularly keen that the King be made to recognise his obligation to her and these children by tacit reminders such as this. She may have had good cause. The rewards and status of royal bastards were considerable, but the paternity of her first child Anne was denied by the King, and when pregnant with Charles in 1662 Pepys records: but though [the child] be the King’s, yet her Lord being still in towne, and sometimes seeing of her, it will be laid to him. (Diary ed. Lord Braybrooke 1988 p.179)

It has been suggested (Alexander 2001) that the identification of Barbara Villiers with the Virgin imposes an even more exalted role on the child’s father. Whether even a sceptical seventeenth century imagination could have supported the impiety is uncertain, but the possibility is there, and the implication might be seen as flattering to the King. It is certain, however, that in this portrait Villiers trumps her rivals and her guise in previous portraits - as Minerva, as St Barbara, as the Magdalen - by becoming the supreme example of womanhood and motherhood. As by this date the barrenness of the Queen was a matter of general report, this portrait may also be seen as a further reproach to Catherine of Braganza

Receive information about exhibitions, news & events.

We will process the personal data you have supplied in accordance with our privacy policy. You can unsubscribe or change your preferences at any time by clicking the link in any emails.

Receive information about exhibitions, news & events.

We will process the personal data you have supplied in accordance with our privacy policy. You can unsubscribe or change your preferences at any time by clicking the link in any emails.
Close

Basket

No items found
Close

Your saved list

This list allows you to enquire about a group of works.
No items found
Close
Mailing list signup

Get exclusive updates from Philip Mould Gallery

Close

Sign up for updates

Artwork enquiry

Receive newsletters

In order to respond to your enquiry, we will process the personal data you have supplied in accordance with our privacy policy. You can unsubscribe or change your preferences at any time by clicking the link in any emails.

Close
Search
Close
Close
500 Years of British Art