"The beauties of Charles II's court, by Lely... look just like they were - a set of kept mistresses, painted, tawdry, showing off their theatrical or meretricious airs and graces, without one touch of real elegance or refinement, or one spark of sentiment to touch the heart."
Written early in the 19th century, William Hazlitt's easy dismissal of the court beauties painted by Sir Peter Lely during Charles II's reign, many of them mistresses of the king, skilfully elides aesthetic and moral judgement. And this has generally been the case with judgements upon Restoration portraits. Whigs in the 18th century despised them for being products of the Stuart court; the Victorians turned them into morality tales; by the 20th century Charles II and his easy-living, cynical and lascivious retinue had been transformed into music-hall material: the "Merry Mon- arch" and his court where a jolly good romping time was to be had by one and all. Rose Tremaine's recent novel, Restoration, was a much more subtle, ambiguous and rounded approach altogether - and so is this thought- provoking, Roy Strong-ish sort of show at the National Portrait Gallery.
Lely was appointed principal painter to the king within two years of the Restoration itself. This act was just one of the various means Charles used to emphasise the fact that there was to be continuity between his reign and that of Charles I. In spite of the fact that there had been an often bloody interregnum of 11 long years, Lely would serve his king rather in the way that Van Dyke had served his.
Lely's portraits dominate this show from first to last. His style of portraiture is easily recognisable, easily imitable - the women are almond- eyed, soft-fleshed, oval-faced. Eyes are heavy-lidded. The look is almost sleepily submissive, and sometimes challengingly sexual. (The most brazen portrait of all, a tender/provocative representation of Diana Kirke, Countess of Oxford, which shows her bare-breasted and holding a blooming rose, has been used for the cover of the expensive and excellent catalogue.) Fabrics - silks and brocades - are heavy, gorgeous. Poses and postures are used and re- used, especially in the 1670s, by which time Lely was so much in demand that he was employing innumerable studio assistants to work on his paintings.
One of the most interesting rooms is devoted to Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland, who bore five of Charles's 10 illegitimate children. Barbara Villiers was the principal mistress - there were usually other, less consequential ones wisping around the royal bedchamber simultaneously - for the first decade of Charles's 25- year reign. Lely …