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Painted Ladies At Yale

ISSUE:  Autumn 2003

Stern historians have never liked England’s Charles II, the Restoration king whose ascension to the throne in 1660 was joyously greeted by enthusiastic London crowds after the death of grim Oliver Cromwell. Nor have they had a good word for the lively women who brightened his court.

In a 1979 biography, the British author Antonia Eraser made a courageous attempt to defend Charles, but the academic historians will have nothing of it. They prefer to portray the king as a self-indulgent “merry monarch” who spent his time dallying with his pretty mistresses. Last year the National Portrait Galley in London and Yale University’s Center for British Art bravely came forward to lift the king’s notorious ladies from their purgatorian status and to raise their principal portraitist, Sir Peter Lely, whose luscious renderings continue to glow more than 300 years after they were painted, to his rightful place as a master artist.

The joint exhibition, mischievously titled Painted Ladies: Women at the Court of Charles II, was first shown in London, then in New Haven. Regrettably, it never reached New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art or Washington’s National Gallery of Art with their wide audiences. But it lives on in a large, perfectly splendid, scholarly, richly illustrated, and jointly published book with the Painted Ladies title. There is also the additional pleasure that one can peruse it while listening to a delightful CD recorded at Oxford’s St. Michael’s Church, Music at the Court of Charles II, in which the harpsichord, the lute, and charming female voice entrance the reader-listener.


The arrival of the king from exile on the Continent was a glorious jubilation. He was triumphantly escorted into London, wrote the diarist John Evelyn, by more than “20,000 horse and foot, brandishing their swords, and shouting inexpressible joy; the ways strewed with flowers, the bells ringing, the streets hung with tapestry, fountains running with wine; the Mayor, Aldermen, and all the companies, in their liveries, chains of gold, and velvet; the windows and balconies, all set with ladies; trumphets, music, and myriads of people flocking.”

The crowds cheered and the bells pealed as the king set his royal foot down at Whitehall Palace, where 11 years earlier his father, Charles I, had been beheaded still declaring the divine right of kings and near to where the body of Cromwell was hanged on a gallows after it had been exhumed from its Westminster Abbey tomb. For the gathered multitude the substitution of the tolerant Charles for the Puritan Oliver was a return to gaiety and sanity. Under Cromwell, the Lord Protector, frivolous dancing had been forbidden, adultery was punishable by death, and Christmas was condemned because it gave liberty to carnal and sensual delights.

There can be no doubt, wrote Winston Churchill in his A History of the English-Speaking Peoples (Dodd, Mead, 1956), “that the mass of the nation in all classes preferred the lax rule of the sinners to the rigorous discipline of the saints. The people of England did not wish to be the people of God in the sense of the Puritan God. They descended with thankfulness from the superhuman levels to which they had been painfully hoisted.”

But the lax rule of the sinners was, and remains, quite unacceptable to the academic critics. One need go no further than the elegant 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, published in 1910-1911 by the Cambridge University Press, to learn how craggy, unsentimental scholars view Charles and the fair ladies of his court. In a lengthy essay, a sage named Philip Chesney Yorke, M.A., Magdalen College, Oxford, describes Charles as an “indolent, sensual and dissipated” king whose vices surpassed “all the bounds of decency and control.” As for his “many mistresses,” most of whom as a consequence of their beauty and availability eventually were bestowed by Charles with the title of duchess or countess, their sole contribution to the court, wrote Yorke, was to produce “a large illegitimate progeny,” a feat which the queen, Catherine of Praganza (Portugal), was unable to achieve legitimately, even once.

The most excellent curators and editors of the exhibition and the book, Catharine MacLeod of the National Portrait Gallery and Julia Marciari Alexander of Yale, do not totally disagree with academia, but they are disinclined to replicate harsh Yorke and his successors. Nor do the book’s fine essayists, Kevin Sharpe of Warwick University, Sonya Wynne of Oxford University Press, and Diana Dethloff of University College, London.

Charles Saumarez Smith, director of the National Portrait Gallery, has pointed out in a History Today article (Oct.2001) that MacLeod and Alexander “have been motivated by a degree of feminism, in wanting to recover the lives of the women who surrounded the court of Charles II, to give them back their individuality, and to rescue these portraits from the condescension and sometimes contemptuous attitude of previous art historians. They want to demonstrate how the opportunities for women to exercise power at this period were severely restricted, so that the only way for them to do so was through marriage, through a court appointment, or through becoming one of the king’s mistresses.” He adds, however, that not all the women were mistresses and courtesans; some of them were “more respectable” ladies.

In walking through the exhibition at Yale and admiring the more than 100 paintings, I gained the sense that other visitors to the Center were quite ready to share the assessment of various critics in years past that the portraits were to be deplored, that they were second-rate, for no better reason than that they depicted women of easy virtue. This attitude is not dissimilar to that of the eminent 18th—19th-century English essayist William Hazlitt, who “unashamedly superimposed his own moral criteria on his stylistic judgments of the pictures, apparently inferring from but actually imposing upon Lely’s paintings the notorious reputations of the sitters, his deeply moral motives.”

Now in the 21st century, when even such publications as The New York Times are not shy about printing quasi-pornographic photographs of women and Yale’s student newspaper publishes a highly popular, explicitly written sex column, it is hard to countenance contemporary Hazlitts. The women painted so brilliantly by Lely and other Restoration artists were simply ambitious females (with very limited vocational opportunities) whose beauty was displayed in grand, idealized strokes, their richly draped or undraped bodies in languid pose.

Although the joint exhibition has been dismantled, a number of the paintings are now back in view at London’s National Portrait Gallery, including an elegant Nell Gwyn. In Los Angeles, the beautiful Louise de Kéroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth, has been returned to her rightful place at the J. Paul Getty Museum, and at Yale visitors to the Center for British Art will find that Lely’s portrait of my favorite painted lady, “wickedly attractive” (Eraser’s description) Diana Kirke, Countess of Oxford, remains part of the permanent collection. Diana, whose left breast is erotically exposed, is an exemplar of a woman’s evanescent beauty, barely indistinguishable from the transient loveliness of the rose she holds in her left hand. It is possible that the Restoration poet Edmund Waller had her in mind when he wrote,

Small is the worth
Of beauty from the light retired;
Bid her come forth,
Suffer herself to be desired,
And not blush so to be admired.


Unlike the image projected by the educated 16th-century queen Elizabeth I, who was declared illegitimate after the execution of her mother, Anne Boleyn, by order of her father, King Henry VIII, most women in Elizabethan, Cromwellian, and Restoration England were illiterate. They were in general considered inferior to men, and their destiny was to submit intellectually and sexually to males. Their main function was to become pregnant and produce boys rather than girls.

Charles II had a different perspective. A 21st-century scholar echoes 20th-century scholar Yorke in his appraisement of the king (“lazy, self-indulgent, shallow, frivolous, shabby” are his descriptive words), but not so Fraser. It is interesting to read her female view of the king in contrast to her male counterparts: “Charles II actually liked women. He enjoyed their company, not only for the purpose of making love to them, but to talk to them, to have supper with them, to be entertained by and to entertain them. He did not snub them or bully them, unlike many of his companions. He allowed them to have brains and talk politics—as a result of which he was of course criticized for subjecting himself to petticoat influence; nevertheless, to our ears such an attitude makes a refreshing change from the English masculine tradition of boredom in female company. . . . If a great lover is one who shows certain essential qualities of tenderness and appreciation for the opposite sex, rather than a sheer sexual athlete, then Charles can lay claim to the title.”

One area where 17th-century women advanced significantly following Cromwell’s Taliban- and Saudi Arabian-like rule, was on the stage. Until the freedoms of the Restoration, female roles were played by men, and today it is difficult to envision Shakespeare’s Kate, Ophelia, and Juliet being performed by males. One of the leading actresses to break the masculine barrier was the king’s most famous mistress, Eleanor “Nell” Gwyn, a rags-to-riches girl who rose from being a humble orange seller in London’s theaters to a theatrical star. She could neither read nor write, but she had great legs and a pretty face, and her sexy performances on stage soon attracted the attention of powerful men, including the king of England, the most powerful of all.

Charles and Nell had two sons. The second died after his birth, but the first thrived. The king stylishly recognized the boy and gave him the titles of Earl of Burford and Duke of St. Albans (an English ducal house descends today, notes Fraser). Unfortunately Nell herself never received a title, although it is believed she was in line to become Countess of Greenwich, an intention thwarted by the king’s death.

There are a number of portraits of “pretty witty Nell,” as Samuel Pepys called her, in various stages of undress, but an engraving after Lely became very popular. It depicts the actress as a shepherdess garlanding a lamb. “What most clearly distinguishes this image,” writes MacLeod, “from portraits of other women in this pose is the fact that Nell Gwyn’s dress seems to have been almost entirely dispensed with, leaving only a shift covering the upper part of her body, this shift itself open and exremely décolleté, revealing her right nipple. While in practice there is almost never any distinction between the poses Lely used to portray “virtuous” women and those with more dubious reputations, portraits that include bare breasts seem exclusively to depict mistresses.”

Soon after the king’s marriage to Catherine of Braganza, it became obvious that the queen could not provide an heir and that as a bedmate she was quite unsatisfactory. Thus Barbara Villiers, married to a gentleman named Roger Palmer, was provided as the king’s first mistress. For his sacrifice Palmer was made an earl with the proviso that his earldom would pass, to use the words of Pepys, to “the males got on the body of this wife,” which suggested that “the title was bestowed in appreciation not of Palmer’s own service to the Crown but rather to Barbara’s.” Barbara produced five children for the king, all received titles, and Barbara herself was created Countess of Castlemaine and Duchess of Cleveland. Her power within the court is reflected in her many stunning portraits by Lely, “since her body was literally the means and guarantee of her status.”

The duchess also had a sixth child, a daughter. The historian A. L. Rowse credits (in The Early Churchills, Harper, 1956) the dashing John Churchill, then 20 years old, as the probable father of 29-year-old Barbara’s last major fling. “She was,” says Rowse, “a relentless gold digger.” And undoubtedly a soft memory for the victor of the Battle of Blenheim and the future Duke of Marlborough.

Barbara was supplanted in 1671 by a Brittany aristocrat, Louise de Kéroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth, who became the king’s most influential mistress. Charles first met her when she and her sister sailed over from France for a London visit, and he was immediately smitten. When the visit was concluded, the sister asked Charles which of her priceless jewels she should leave as a souvenir of the social call. The king looked at Louise and replied, “She is the only jewel I covet.”

The king of France, Louis XIV, quickly realized that in Louise he had an incomparable diplomat, and she was thrown hook, line, and sinker into the English court. But Louise was Catholic, a persuasion that Charles, head of the Church of England, yearned for in pro-Anglican, anti-Catholic England. During Louise’s tenure the king was sympathetic to Catholic France while the English rank and file and the Parliament preferred the Protestant Dutch.

The general antipathy of the citizenry to Catholicism is illustrated by an incident in which Nell Gwyn’s carriage was surrounded by an angry crowd that was under the impression that the woman inside was the unpopular Catholic Duchess of Portsmouth. Nell successfully dissuaded the crowd from their anger when she called out to them, “Pray good people, be civil; I am the Protestant whore.” Nell was not only a good actress but also a quick wit.

Still, Louise was a prominent beauty and racy reproductions of her portrait were popular. Her only child, Charles Lennox, was created first Duke of Richmond and Lennox at the age of three. One of the top-notch contributors to the Painted Ladies book, Sandra Sullivan, notes that “Of all the families descending from Charles II, only that of Charles Lennox—who married Anne Brudenell and had three children—continues in a direct line from father to son through nine generations. Goodwood House, Sussex, which he bought in 1720, is still the family seat.”


One can surely agree with the scholastic community that the Restoration was a time of great moral laxity, even in this early 21st century when morality is open to question. But the period should also be recognized for its achievements, including the creation of the greatest and most influential scientific book ever written.

Kenneth Clark put it gracefully in his superlative book Civilisation (Harper, 1970): “As so often happens, a new freedom of movement led to an outburst of pent-up energy. There are usually men of genius waiting for these moments of expansion, like ships waiting for a high tide, and on this occasion there was in England the brilliant group of natural philosophers who were to form the Royal Society.”

The group was granted its charter by Charles II, and he was pleased to present it with a silver gilt mace that was to be carried before its president, a position assumed in 1684 by no less a personage than Samuel Pepys, famous diarist, man about town, and a prime maker of the Royal Navy. As chief executive of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, he gave his blessing to Sir Isaac Newton’s work of genius, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. It is doubtful that either Pepys or Charles understood what the 600-page book was all about or had the slightest inkling that it would establish the foundation of modern science.

The king died a year after Newton’s book was published. But as an amateur scientist—he collected clocks, experimented with herbs from his own physic garden, and had a chemistry laboratory in his private apartments—he would have been keenly aware not only of Newton but also of other distinguished scientific pioneers—the chemist Robert Boyle, the astronomers Robert Hooke and Edmund Halley, and the scientist-architect Christopher Wren, all Society members.

Besides beautiful women and male court companions of questionable character, Charles was head of a nation that was producing other talented men. There was the dramatist William Congreve, the poets Andrew Marvel and Robert Herrick, the poet and dramatist John Dryden, and the great John Milton, author of the epics Paradise Lost (1667) and Paradise Regained (1671).

And women were at last escaping from illiteracy in their striving to make their mark and to achieve intellectual equality. The playwright and author Aphra Behn was writing witty works that were acclaimed in the 20th century by Virginia Woolf. She was buried (“scandalously but rather appropriately,” said Woolf) in Westminster Abbey. And other women were also making a meaningful change in the social order by participating forcefully in political discussions with men in “that new mart of Restoration gossip, sociability and politics, the coffee-house.” Government decisions as well as the shocking sexuality of Charles and his mistresses were often top subjects in the coffeehouses that emerged in London and elsewhere in England.

In addition to the art work of Lely and other artists, music triumphantly advanced in the reign of Charles following “the fairly wholesale destruction of church music during the Puritan regime” of Cromwell. Leading the march was one of England’s greatest composers, Henry Purcell, who began his musical career as a chorister in the Chapel Royal until his voice broke in his 15th year. In 1675 he was appointed music copyist at Westminster Abbey, and he was the author of several early compositions. One was an ode for the king’s birthday—The Address of the Children of the Chapel Royal to the King, and their Master, Captain Cooke, on his Majesty’s Birthday, A.D. 1670, composed by Master Purcell, one of the Children of the said Chapel. In the years following, Purcell was appointed organist of the Chapel Royal and a king’s composer as he created some of England’s finest musical works, including music for the operas of his good friend, John Dryden. Other Restoration composers, all of whom can be heard on the National Portrait Gallery’s CD, are James Hart, John Playford, Matthew Locke, Pelham Humfrey, Thomas Mace, John Banister, and Alphonso Marsh.

It is distressing that one of the world’s greatest philosophers on freedom, John Locke, was unable to write his epochal essays in his native England, essays that were to be so influential to the political thinking of Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin a century later in the founding of the United States. Locke was apparently caught up in the political crossfire that removed his friend the Earl of Shaftesbury from his position as lord chancellor. Locke took himself to France and Holland to compose the essays. They were published eventually in England after William III became king.


Charles died in bed, not on a gallows as had his father, a testament to his political adroitness. The date was Feb. 6, 1685, 25 years after his sublime reception at Whitehall Palace. His queen, distraught with grief, was at his deathbed, as were many of his devoted children that had been provided to him so willingly by his dozen or so mistresses.

The ordinary people of England also grieved, wrote an observer, Roger North, who said that “almost every living soul cried before and at his Decease, as for the loss of their best Friend in the world.” His body was laid to rest in a vault in Westminster Abbey near to where the bodies of many of his children would ultimately join him. His queen and his mistresses, however, would lie elsewhere.

An attempt by the author of this essay to provide a final judgment of Charles and his rule would be a bold and imprudent thing to do in face of the many scholarly studies that almost unanimously condemn the man. The diarist John Evelyn said that Charles was “a Prince of many virtues, and many great imperfections.” And Sir George Savile, Marquis of Halifax, believed that the vices of the king were those common to human frailty.

As for Samuel Pepys, who was no sluggard when it came to the pursuit of attractive women, his opinion of the king is summarized by Claire Tomalin in her polished and proficient new biography of the diarist (Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self, Knopf, 2002). She writes: “The king’s patronage of the theatre, painting and music was unequivocally welcomed, and the Diary is full of the pleasures offered by the revival of church music, the reopening of the theatres and visits to the studios of painters where court beauties were being immortalized. . . . [But] Charles’s openly displayed adultery, though good for gossip, also seemed to Pepys “a poor thing for a Prince to do.” What he objected to was not so much the fact of adultery as to the absence of any decent discretion—a king should at least appear to set an example. . . . In Pepys’s eyes Charles threw away his advantages by not taking his kingly role seriously enough. Instead of hard work, dignity and glory he settled into a life devoted to amusement and pleasure: women, horseracing, sports, drinking, theatregoing, sailing.”

Our Oxford scholar, Philip Yorke, wrote that the king’s “small traits of amiability, which pleased his contemporaries, cannot disguise for us the broad lines of Charles’s career and character. How far the extraordinary corruption of private morals which has gained for the Restoration period so unenviable a notoriety was owing to the king’s own example of flagrant debauchery, how far to the natural reaction from an artificial Puritanism, is uncertain, but it is incontestable that Charles’s cynical selfishness was the chief cause of the degradation of public life which marks his reign, and of the disgraceful and unscrupulous betrayal of the national interests which raised France to a threatening predominance and imperilled the very existence of Britain for generations.”

Antonia Fraser has a different audit from Yorke and his academic colleagues. It is: “King Charles II had inherited a country war-torn and poor, divided, restless and suspicious. He left behind him a country outwardly at harmony. He was personally beloved from his early days . . .to those last years, when he still basked in national affection. . . . Here was a man who knew all about Sloth and Lust, but was singularly free from Pride, Greed, Avarice, Anger and Envy. As for the Virtues, he was touched in some measure by them all, from Charity downwards, including Temperance while in exile, and Prudence at home.”

So how shall I conclude these conflicting observations of Charles, his person mocked and his rule damned by academia. Like Fraser, I leave the last word to Halifax: “If he loved too much to lie upon his own down bed of ease, his subjects had the pleasure during his reign of lolling and stretching upon theirs. Let his royal ashes then lie soft upon him, and cover him from harsh and unkind censures.”


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