Issue Number: 116
There is more to Peter Lely’s art than court portraits, as a show at the Courtauld Gallery reveals, writes Simon Wilson
History has not been kind to Sir Peter Lely (1618-80). Born in Westphalia and trained in Holland, he settled in London around 1643 during the Civil War, which he cleverly negotiated, and became hugely successful. He tends to be seen simply as court portraitist to Charles II, and particularly as the recorder of that legion of big-eyed beauties who were the King’s mistresses.
But he was in fact an enormously intelligent and slightly mysterious artist, capable of creating complex and enigmatic works of art. Unfortunately he was rarely given the opportunity to do so, given the notorious reluctance of British patrons at that period to commission anything other than portraits of themselves, their horses, their mistresses, and their wives and children (probably in that order).
Peter Lely, 'The Concert', late 1640s. © The Courtauld Gallery, London
Now the Courtauld Gallery has again brought its art-historical microscope to bear on a neglected area of art, to reveal extraordinary richness. ‘Peter Lely: A Lyrical Vision’, brings together the finest of the grand figure paintings that Lely made when he could. The response to pulchritude that gives life to the best of his court beauties here becomes a subtle exploration of human sensuality, in which the erotic is evoked as part of a life of the senses that also embraces the realms of nature, poetry and music.
In one of the most ambitious of these works, Nymphs by a Fountain (c.1650), we are confronted with a heap of half-clad and unclad bodies, in what seems to be the aftermath of an alfresco orgy. But Lely’s treatment is so tactful, so lyrical, so ambiguous and so carefully referenced to impeccably great predecessors such as Titian, that we are held long in thoughtful wonderment, uncertain of what it is we really may be seeing.
Even more allusive and elusive however, is his masterpiece The Concert. Its setting is again alfresco but here the figures are no nymphs, but fashionable people of the time enjoying the civilised social experience of a music recital. Yet the lavishly-gowned principal female member of the audience, seated facing us, is startlingly bare-breasted, while a singer has allowed her clothing to slip down her back.
The Concert seems to have been painted in the late 1640s, possibly for the artist’s own satisfaction rather than a patron. It certainly reflects Lely’s great personal love of music, as well as his knowledge of the pastoral mythological subjects of the great Venetians, such as Titian and Giorgione. But Lely has boldly modernised their scenes from ancient myth – his seated woman would have been perhaps the goddess Venus, the singer a muse. It was a highly original thing to do, anticipating the later fêtes galantes of Watteau and even Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe. Beyond that, it may be an allegory of music paying tribute to beauty, but we can be content simply to revel in its delicious mystery.
Those are just two flowers from this garden of delights of an exhibition that reveals an added dimension to a misunderstood artist. Lely emerges as a new star in that otherwise dull period of British art between the era of Van Dyck and the emergence of Hogarth in the 1730s.
• ’Peter Lely: A Lyrical Vision’, Courtauld Gallery, 11 Oct–13 Jan, 2013