Exhibition: The Wild, the Beautiful and the Damned, Hampton Court Palace, Surrey, April 5 - September 30 2012
© 2012 Richard Lea-Hair
“To possess beauty was to own a little bit of paradise,” declares this exhibition’s opening banner, introducing a display that explores the lives of the mistresses who lived and loved at the Stuart Court.
If you count paradise as wealth, fame and an unrivalled collection of soft furnishings then these women had it all. Becoming a mistress was, for many, a chance to break out of their social class and improve the quality of their lives.
Curator Brett Dolman says the idea for The Wild, the Beautiful and the Damned was to give today’s audience a chance to meet these mistresses, usually seen lurking in the background of other displays which choose to focus on the Royal protagonists.
The pictures are hung at eye level, so visitors come face-to-face with the subjects of the exhibition as they engage with the stories of their lives.
Peter Lely, the leading artist in the Royal court at this time, is behind many of the paintings on display. He drew his inspiration from Italian renaissance styles where subjects were depicted in an idealised form.
The Royal Collection 2002 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
Lely flouted classical conventions of perspective and proportion in order to flatter his subjects, emphasising the tactile curves of their bodies as he pictured them in states of undress.
Lely's success was so great that his paintings gained status as the ultimate fashion accessory among Stuart courtiers.
Some of the mistresses commissioned these pieces themselves, as a means by which to advertise themselves to potential suitors. Husbands were warned against publicly displaying Lely portraits of their wives, for fear that it might result in her being pursued by other men who saw them.
The display breaks off into a second room where the focus shifts to the mistresses of Charles II. Specifically, these are the three most longstanding - Barbara Villiers, Louise de Keroualle and Nell Gwyn.
The Stuart King was a notorious womaniser. During his reign he was inspired by the French model of court, instating his mistresses in semi-official positions. These women were given apartments at Hampton Court; openly paraded as the subjects of his affairs and made ladies in waiting to his long-suffering wife, Catherine.
The portraits in this part of the exhibition sit next to a giant unmade bed, unashamedly alluding to the sexual nature of the role these women played. Large, resplendent images of the King and his wife hang like bookends at each end of the space, overlooking the mistresses who are displayed in the space in between.
The Bankes Collection, National Trust © NTPL/John Hammond
These images conjure up as many questions as they answer about the experience of a mistress in Stuart court. The women were just as likely to be eulogised for their beauty as they were to be pilloried as a whore.
“Beauty is a timeless concept and the issues that it raises are still relevant today”, says Dolman.
“If you were ambitious it could be a route to getting what you wanted, but there are many victims of beauty in this story, too.”
Just like the Stuart court, we still battle with overtly sexual images of women today. Do these pictures degrade their subjects, opening them to ridicule and misogynistic abuse, or are they empowering, allowing women to take charge of their own destiny, benefitting from the gains in wealth and privilege that their beauty brings?
Mistresses wore the best clothes and got invited to the most extravagant parties. Their illegitimate children of the King were ennobled, elevating the status of their family. Display cases show a selection of accessories and cosmetics used by the mistresses at Stuart courts, giving a sense of the luxury they had access to.
Knole, The Sackville Collection (The National Trust) ©NTPL/Sackville
But the exhibition also looks at the stories of some of the mistresses who weren’t so fortunate. Teenagers as young as 14 or 15 found themselves exploited by older men who never credited them with mistress status and left them after a one-night stand.
Others died of syphilis or were poisoned by jealous husbands. The display draws attention to what could be an isolating and difficult existence, women only being valued on their ability to titillate men.
The final room in the display focuses on the decline of this licentious period at Stuart Court, when Anne came to the throne.
She was plagued by ill health and left severely disabled after 18 pregnancies, of which only five children survived. She is depicted in middle age, a corrupted beauty not able to repeat the behaviour of her predecessors.
“The content in the exhibition is provocative without being over done”, says Ian Franklin, the State Apartment Warden.
“This is a rare opportunity to see the paintings in context. They are not hung in an art gallery, but in the actual rooms where these people lived and died.”
- Open 10am-6pm (9.30pm first Monday of month).
Admission £7.20-£16.95 (£10 Monday evening, family ticket £36.50-£43.46). Adults £15.40 Children (under 16) £7.20. Book online.
The Royal Collection 2011 © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II