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Nell Gwin still for sale ...Sotheby's to Offer Possibly the Most Seductive Image

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  • robinsonmf
    Press release / news story: Sotheby s to Offer Possibly the Most Seductive Image in British Art at Old Masters Sale
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 6, 2011
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      Press release / news story:
      Sotheby's to Offer Possibly the Most Seductive Image in British Art at Old Masters Sale

      Didn't find a buyer in the room tonight:

      Sotheby's Catalogue with description:

      LOT 42 Sir Peter Lely
      oil on canvas
      123.8 by 156.8 cm.; 48¾ by 61¾ in.
      ESTIMATE 600,000-800,000 GBP ($ 1,000,800 - 1,334,400)

      Possibly the most seductive image in British art, this ravishing portrait was recorded as; "Nell Gwin
      naked leaning on a bed, with her Child by Sr Peter Lilly. This picture was painted at the express
      command of K. Charles 2d nay he came to Sr Peter Lillys house to see it painted when she was
      naked on purpose. afterwards this picture was at Court. where the Duke of Buckingham took it
      from (when K. James went away,) as may others did the like."
      These words were written by George Vertue in 1723 when he visited Buckingham House to see
      the collection of the courtier, John Sheffield, Duke of Buckingham. The presence in the RoyalCollection of such a fascinating picture was confirmed by the publication in 1758 of the Catalogue
      of... Pictures... belonging to King James the Second, where reference is made under no. 305 to
      such a picture being artfully concealed – "By Danckers and Sir Peter Lely. The sliding piece before
      Madame Gwynn's picture naked, with a cupid." Following the Duke's death, his title was inherited
      by his young son who died in Italy a few years later. The portrait was probably still at Buckingham
      House in 1746, as 'a naked Lady and son, Lely' is recorded in an inventory of that year.
      This is the enticing background which may lie behind the portrait which until 2007 hung at
      Chiddingstone Castle (fig 1). The portrait had been purchased at the great Lowther Castle sale in
      1947 where it was in the company of over forty other British portraits from the seventeenth
      century, and where it was described as 'Portrait of Nell Gwyne as Venus reclining in a landscape
      with a cupid and a stone vase by her side'. It is unclear when it had entered the Lonsdale
      collection, but Henry Lowther, 3rd Viscount Lonsdale was prominent at the Royal Court in the
      eighteenth century, being Lord of the Bedchamber, Constable of the Tower and Lord Privy Seal,
      and he could well have acquired the picture from Buckingham House.
      The portrait's first appearance in a major exhibition was in 1956 when Sir Oliver Millar concluded
      that it 'may be the portrait in the King's and Buckingham's collections'. When he prepared the
      catalogue for the 1972 Lely exhibition he noted that 'the portrait cannot be linked decisively' with
      the entry in James II's inventory quoted above, and went on to suggest that it could instead be the
      Duchess of Cleveland. However, two factors militate against this. Firstly, the portrait dates from
      the mid 1660s by which time the duchess had been superseded by others in the King's affections,
      and secondly her aristocratic background would mean that is would be unlikely that she would be
      depicted in such a pose. The evidence of the very specific description in James II's inventory and
      in George Vertue's notes support the identification of the sitter as Nell Gwyn, and it is fitting that
      such a picture should be removed from the Royal Collection by the Duke of Buckingham as he
      was a great friend and admirer of hers.
      The question of likeness with Lely is always a difficult subject as even his contemporaries
      commented on the fact that many of his sitters looked similar – 'Mr Walker, ye Painter swore Lilly's
      Pictures, was all Brothers and Sister'. By far the most satisfactory conclusion is to regard the
      picture as an idealized portrait of Nell Gwyn, and Malcolm Rogers, one of the leading authorities
      on seventeenth century portraits who worked at the National Portrait Gallery in London for 19
      years, has always believed that the sitter is 'likely to be Nell Gwyn' and is unconvinced by the
      comparison with the Duchess of Cleveland.
      Of all Charles II's colourful mistresses, Nell Gwyn "Pretty, witty Nell," was certainly the most widely
      known and the most popular. Much of her attraction lies in the fact that she rose from being a
      penniless orange seller to become a favorite of the King and the mother of a Duke (fig. 2).
      Probably through a connection to Henry Killigrew, son of the proprietor of the King's Theatre, she
      became a minor actress. On 3rd April 1665 Pepys visited the Duke's Theatre and noticed 'pretty,
      witty Nell' amongst the audience, and in December the next year he first saw her on the stage and
      admired her comic acting. She attracted the attention of Charles Sackville, Lord Buckhurst with
      whom she had a brief liaison, and by 1668 she was amongst several actresses introduced to
      Charles II as possible mistresses. By 1669 she was pregnant with her first child by the King, andthe child was christened Charles on 7th June 1670.The next year her second son James was
      born, and she moved to a substantial house at the west end of Pall Mall. Generous gifts from the
      King followed, including a pension and the grant of Burford House at Windsor. Her ready wit and
      her colourful language were a stark contrast to the formalities of Court life, and the King clearly
      found this refreshing. Her lowly origins led to much comment from other ladies at Court, but Nell
      was never at a loss for the requisite repartee. Sir Francis Fane heard her response to a supposed
      slight from the Duchess of Cleveland – she 'clapt her on the shoulder, and saide she perceaved
      that persons of one trade loved not one another'. Her main rival for the King's affections was
      Louise de Keroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth, and one of the best known if unsubstantiated
      anecdotes concerns an occasion in Oxford in March 1681 when an angry mob surrounded her
      coach thinking that its passenger was the Duchess of Portsmouth. 'Pray good people be silent, I
      am the Protestant whore!' was her response to the crowd. Though she was never granted a title
      herself, she had the satisfaction of seeing her son Charles created Duke of St. Albans in 1684, a
      year before the King's death.
      Sir Peter Lely, moved to England in the early 1640s and following the recent death of Sir Anthony
      van Dyck and William Dobson, soon established himself as the most gifted portrait artist in the
      country (Cornelis Johnson having returned to Holland). Lely's immense talent was recognised by
      the Restoration Court and by October 1661, King Charles II was to grant him an annual pension of
      £200 as the King's Principal Painter 'as formerly to Van Dyck', as well as naturalisation. The
      portraits which he executed over the following decades of the King, his family, his mistresses and
      many of the other central figures at the court, have allowed later generations an insight into this
      glamorous if licentious world.
      Lely was an inveterate collector of Old Master drawings and paintings himself, and was hugely
      influenced by earlier artists. His ultimate debt to Titian in this picture is clear and would not have
      been lost on King Charles II, who was himself acutely aware of his late father's collecting and
      patronage, and was particularly familiar with van Dyck's artistic style. Lely briefly owned the latter
      artist's Cupid and Psyche (Royal Collection), in which Psyche reclines in a strikingly similar pose
      (in reverse) to the Venus in the present painting. Diana Dethloff has pointed out a reference to
      Lely placing a 'Naked woman and a cupid' by the Dutch artist Dirk Freres over the chimney in the
      'main middle room' in his Covent Garden house (see D. Dethloff, 'The Executors' Account Book
      and the Dispersal of Sir Peter Lely's Collection', Journal of the History of Collections, 8, 1996, no.
      1) and also notes a 'Venus and Cupid whole figure, in a Landskip' by Paris Bordone in Lely's
      possession (reproduced in 'Sir Peter Lely's Collection', The Burlington Magazine, LXXXIII, August
      1943, pl. B).
      Catalogue of Pictures, Statuary &c., Lowther Castle 1879, Lonsdale Mss. Lowther Castle, Large
      Gallery, no. 24, 'Nell Gwynne as Venus Sir P. Lely';
      G. Vertue, 'Vertue Note Books', I, Walpole Society, XVIII, London 1930, p. 97 (referring to the
      Whitehall picture);
      O. Millar, The Tudor, Stuart and Early Georgian Pictures in the Collection of Her Majesty the
      Queen, London, 1963, p. 119 (referring to the same);
      D. Piper, Catalogue of Seventeenth-Century Portraits in the National Portrait Gallery 1625-1714,Cambridge, 1963, p. 149;
      S. Wynne, '"The Brightest Glories of the British Spheres", Women at the Court of Charles II', in the
      exhibition catalogue, Painted Ladies: Women at the Court of Charles II, National Portrait Gallery,
      London, 2001, p. 46 (referring to the Whitehall picture)
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