Barbara Palmer (née Villiers) Duchess of Cleveland with her son, Charles Fitzroy, as Madonna and Child by Sir Peter Lely, c1664. © National Portrait Gallery, London.
Not for the first time serious money has changed hands for an incriminating image of one of the ranks of Britain’s rich and famous. However, instead of the usual suspects clutching wads of cash, the brown envelope was handed over by a slightly more venerable institution.
A portrait of Charles II’s mistress and illegitimate son by the king’s principal painter Sir Peter Lely has been bought by the National Portrait Gallery for £147,000.
The painting depicts the Restoration monarch’s leading mistress – Barbara Villiers, the Duchess of Cleveland – holding Charles Fitzroy, the eldest of five children he fathered with her. It was unearthed in 2001 for the Painted Ladies: Women at the Court of Charles II exhibition at the NPG and a public appeal was launched to buy it.
With support from, amongst others, the National Heritage Memorial Fund, Camelot PLC and members of Chelsea Arts Club, they’ve now done it.
"This seductive painting challenged the portrait conventions of the day and perfectly encapsulates the liberal values of Charles II’s court," said David Barrie, director of the National Art Collections Fund which contributed £40,000 of the total cost.
"We are very pleased to have helped fulfil the gallery’s desire permanently to embrace the ample charms of the duchess," he added.
King Charles II. Attributed to Thomas Hawker, c1680. © National Portrait Gallery, London.
As a controversial and leading figure in Charles II’s court, Barbara Villiers was a household name in Restoration England. As Charles’ mistress during the first decade of his reign (1630-1685) she set the standard for beauty, acquired titles and great wealth and exerted considerable political influence.
As a result she had many detractors and her deeds were the subject of much popular satire. She features in the bawdy poetry of Lord Rochester and gets some particularly colourful mentions in Samuel Pepys’ famous diary. To her critics she represented all that was bad about the regime that took over following Oliver Cromwell’s puritanical period in charge.
By depicting Villiers and her son as the Madonna and Child – the most venerated of Christian religious figures – Lely was clearly aiming to shock.
A Dutchman by birth, Peter Lely’s style dominated the period. Settling in England in the 1640s he created the archetypal images of the Royal and noble movers and shakers of the age.
The Duchess of Cleveland was Lely’s muse and their relationship was mutually beneficial; his many portraits of her publicised her beauty and status, while her prominence at court was a useful promotional tool for his art.
"This is an intriguing, wonderful portrait," added NPG director Sandy Nairne. "I am most grateful to all those who have made the acquisition by the National Portrait Gallery possible."