Issue Number: 114
Jenny Uglow peeks behind the scenes of an exhibition of portraits of court beauties
Hampton Court provides the perfect setting for ‘The Wild, the Beautiful and the Damned’, a glorious show of Stuart portraits. It runs from the heady days of the Restoration, through the disastrous reign of James II and the triumph of William and Mary, to the demise of Queen Anne.
It was here, in the summer of 1662, that Charles II brought his new bride, Catherine of Braganza, slim and small, with a pale oval face and an old-fashioned Portuguese hairstyle. On Charles’s birthday, 29 May, a day so hot that the court ladies’ make-up melted, the couple rolled up to Hampton Court through a cloud of dust. But as the curators of this exhibition emphasise, the key figure was not the timid queen – represented in the show by Huysmans’ portrait (1664-70) of her as a long-suffering St Catherine. In fact all eyes were on her arch rival, the voluptuous and stormy royal mistress Barbara Villiers who with towering rage insisted on being made a Lady of the Bedchamber, showing all the sexiness and cheek that made Pepys feel faint when he saw her underwear on the line in Whitehall gardens.
Peter Lely, 'Portrait of Nell Gwyn as Venus', c.1668. © Private Collection.
The royal mistresses are the exhibition’s main focus, forming a courtly sequel to the National Portrait Gallery’s recent ‘First Actresses’ show, but elevated to a grander and more dangerous stage. Barbara Villiers was Lely’s ‘ideal beauty’ – seen in his 1665 portrait and in three more paintings that chart her career through to the reign of Queen Anne. But Villiers had many rivals, such as Frances Stuart, who is depicted shining in Lely’s portrait of her in gold dress and pearls (1662-65). Besotted by her wit and beautiful legs, Charles used Frances as the model for Britannia on medals and coins (two medals from 1667 commemorating the Peace of Breda are on display) but she escaped his charms, eloping, to his fury, with the Duke of Richmond.
As the honeymoon of the Restoration faded, the King turned from Barbara – a Catholic convert, hated for her power – to popular actresses such as Nell Gwyn, depicted by Lely as Venus (1668). While the actress famously calmed a mob by announcing ‘Stay, good people – I am His Majesty’s Protestant whore’, Nell’s jibe was aimed at a new mistress, the dark-haired, tempestuous Louise de Kéroualle, widely regarded as a French spy, an allegation also levelled at the startling, cross-dressing Hortense Mancini, Cardinal Mazarin’s niece. She and her sister are portrayed by Ferdinand Voet in Hortense and her Sister Maria Mancini (1670-1700).
Each room in the exhibition has a theme, while in the Queen’s Ball Room the glamorous portraits are accompanied by fashion accessories of the day, from gloves that would have been scented with perfume to elegant lace cravats. The combination of artefacts and paintings gives a unique flavour of the time, making this show all the more accessible – an escape into a world of vice and virtue, and the unparalleled drama of the Restoration court.