Painted Ladies at Yale

By Burnham, Alexander | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Autumn 2003 | Go to article overview

Painted Ladies at Yale


Burnham, Alexander, The Virginia Quarterly Review


Stern historians have never liked England's Charles II, the Restoration king whose ascension to the throne in 1660 was joyously greeted by enthusiastic London crowds after the death of grim Oliver Cromwell. Nor have they had a good word for the lively women who brightened his court.

In a 1979 biography, the British author Antonia Fraser made a courageous attempt to defend Charles, but the academic historians will have nothing of it. They prefer to portray the king as a self-indulgent "merry monarch" who spent his time dallying with his pretty mistresses. Last year the National Portrait Galley in London and Yale University's Center for British Art bravely came forward to lift the king's notorious ladies from their purgatorian status and to raise their principal portraitist, Sir Peter Lely, whose luscious renderings continue to glow more than 300 years after they were painted, to his rightful place as a master artist.

The joint exhibition, mischievously titled Painted Ladies; Women at the Court of Charles II, was first shown in London, then in New Haven. Regrettably, it never reached New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art or Washington's National Gallery of Art with their wide audiences. But it lives on in a large, perfectly splendid, scholarly, richly illustrated, and jointly published book with the Painted Ladies title. There is also the additional pleasure that one can peruse it while listening to a delightful CD recorded at Oxford's St. Michael's Church, Music at the Court of Charles II, in which the harpsichord, the lute, and charming female voice entrance the reader-listener.

II

The arrival of the king from exile on the Continent was a glorious jubilation. He was triumphantly escorted into London, wrote the diarist John Evelyn, by more than "20,000 horse and foot, brandishing their swords, and shouting inexpressible joy; the ways strewed with flowers, the bells ringing, the streets hung with tapestry, fountains running with wine; the Mayor, Aldermen, and all the companies, in their liveries, chains of gold, and velvet; the windows and balconies, all set with ladies; trumphets, music, and myriads of people flocking."

The crowds cheered and the bells pealed as the king set his royal foot down at Whitehall Palace, where 11 years earlier his father, Charles I, had been beheaded still declaring the divine right of kings and near to where the body of Cromwell was hanged on a gallows after it had been exhumed from its Westminster Abbey tomb. For the gathered multitude the substitution of the tolerant Charles for the Puritan Oliver was a return to gaiety and sanity. Under Cromwell, the Lord Protector, frivolous dancing had been forbidden, adultery was punishable by death, and Christmas was condemned because it gave liberty to carnal and sensual delights.

There can be no doubt, wrote Winston Churchill in his A History of the English-Speaking Peoples (Dodd, Mead, 1956), "that the mass of the nation in all classes preferred the lax rule of the sinners to the rigorous discipline of the saints. The people of England did not wish to be the people of God in the sense of the Puritan God. They descended with thankfulness from the superhuman levels to which they had been painfully hoisted."

But the lax rule of the sinners was, and remains, quite unacceptable to the academic critics. One need go no further than the elegant llth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, published in 1910-1911 by the Cambridge University Press, to learn how craggy, unsentimental scholars view Charles and the fair ladies of his court. In a lengthy essay, a sage named Philip Chesney Yorke, M.A., Magdalen College, Oxford, describes Charles as an "indolent, sensual and dissipated" king whose vices surpassed "all the bounds of decency and control." As for his "many mistresses," most of whom as a consequence of their beauty and availability eventually were bestowed by Charles with the title of duchess or countess, their sole contribution to the court, wrote Yorke, was to produce "a large illegitimate progeny," a feat which the queen, Catherine of Praganza (Portugal), was unable to achieve legitimately, even once. …

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