LONDON.- 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 Royal Collection 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 Firstly, the portrait dates from the mid 1660s by which time the duchess had been superseded by others in the King's affections, and secondly her aristocratic background would mean that is would be unlikely that she would be depicted in such a pose.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. 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, and the 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).