|Reproduction only for non-commercial use.
© March 2005; revised 11 January 2007
|Richard Lovelace on Sir Peter Lely’s Talent for Psychological Portraiture, 1647
PETER LELY WAS BORN, under the name of Vander Faes, in Westphalia (Soest), to Dutch parents. His father hailed from a house in de Lelye on the western side of the Noordeinde of The Hague, and it was from this location of the family house that, by 1637, he acquired the name Peter Lely and along with it, the identity of a great landscape painter and portraitist.
In 1641, Lely visited England, where he would reside until his sudden death in 1680. Already by 1650, while still in his thirties, Lely (heavily influenced by Anthony Van Dyck in London) had achieved great acclaim and was considered by many to be England’s finest portrait painter. Appointed principal painter to the king in 1661, and knighted in 1679, Lely achieved his greatest prominence after the Restoration, under the royal patronage of Charles II.
|Charles I, with his second son, James, Duke of York, in 1647
Painted by Peter Lely (16181680).
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With his large studio of assistants, Lely brought the mass production of portraiture in England to a new level.
While modern art critics have noted the “mass-produced quality” of some of Lely’s output for example, his portraits of women (in the style of Van Dyck) show his female sitters in loose-fitting dress, usually made of satin, before standard backgrounds of fluted columns and drapery at least one of his contemporaries was struck by Lely’s skill at psychological portraiture, given the right subject. In verses dated ca. 1647, the poet-painter, Richard Lovelace, praised Lely’s unique ability to “dr[a]w a Minde.”
RICHARD LOVELACE (16181658) was described by his contemporaries, John Aubrey and Anthony Wood, as “one of the handsomest men in England” and also as a casualty of the civil war. Lovelace spent his entire fortune (as heir to great estates in Kent) in support of the Royalist cause, and was twice jailed for his political activism. He died in abject poverty lodged in “obscure and dirty places, more befitting the worst of beggars and poorest of servants,” and wearing “ragged cloaths (whereas when he was in his glory he wore cloth of gold and silver)” of a consumption brought on by debilitating melancholy, the psychosocial response of a “prowd” and inflexible man to the Royalists’ changed condition.
The following verses conclude a “famous piece of ecphrastic poetry” written by Lovelace after viewing Lely’s portrait (painted sometime between the end of August and middle of November 1647) of Charles I with his second son, the future James II. Lely’s painting and Lovelace’s verses pre-date the Regicide (Charles I was executed on 30 January 1649), but both texts are the work of artists trying to come to terms with the crumbling Royalist position at the end of the First Civil War (MayJune 1646), and with Charles I’s subsequent imprisonment and declining fortunes throughout 1647.
In particular, Lovelace’s verses compliment Lely on his moving account of unbowed royalty, painted “with so bold a spirit / And soft a grace”:
Lois Potter’s sensitive reading of both texts emphasizes Lovelace’s fascination with paradox in Lely’s painting: “the emotional charge which it creates between king, prince, and spectator, while apparently suppressing all emotion” (Potter 1989, p. 67).
To drive home his point about the hidden powers of Lely’s psychological portraiture, Lovelace relies on an orientalist metaphor “Thou dost the things Orientally the same” thus invoking a cultural commonplace among virtuosi concerning oriental unities. In juxtaposing the unity of signifier and signified found in the Chinese (Oriental) character with the crude visual hieroglyphs “of old” emphasized in emblematic picturing, Lovelace constructs an eastern frame for Lely’s western art, thus enlisting yet another principle of the well-entrenched doctrine of the coincidence of opposites. Later in the century, Samuel Butler would write in Hudibras of how “The extremes of glory and of shame / Like east and west become the same.”
The unusual human and psychological dimension of Lely’s visual rhetoric in the 1647 portrait of Charles I and son is most apparent when set against what Lois Potter describes as “the old-fashioned iconic royal portraits of Queen Elizabeth I.” Lovelace is most struck that, as perceived through Lely’s empathic eye and brush, “the king needs no crown to express his innate royalty” (Potter 67).
Robert Hooke’s portable camera obscura
(designed in the early 1660s)
Of note, Robert Hooke apprenticed briefly with Lely, ca. 1648/9, shortly after his father died (when Hooke was 13), leaving young Robert £100 for this purpose. But Hooke incurred such severe headaches from the paints at Lely’s establishment that he soon removed himself to the more congenial atmosphere of Dr. Busby’s Westminster School, where he flourished under Busby’s tutelage. A maturer Hooke would return to Lely’s studio in 1675 to demonstrate the use of a portable camera obscura he had designed during the 1660s, and to discuss with the celebrated artist additional means “of helping the sight.”
A modern appreciation of “the China Character” and its conceptual art
This popular portrait print of Elizabeth, published by Sudbury & Humble during the early years of the 17th century, shows the Virgin Queen in full royal regalia holding sceptre and orb, bejeweled in a triple chain of pearls all recognizable icons of Elizabethan power and rule.
Engraving of Elizabeth I, Queen of England. Engraved by William Rogers after Isaac Oliver.
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|This portrait engraving of the House of Stuart also popularized the symbols of royal power, here closely associated with the “divine right” of kings.
The 2-part gloss at the bottom of the print takes a less rhapsodic tone towards the royal sitters than did Sudbury and Humble’s print of Elizabeth I:
|Engraving of James I and Anne of Denmark, King and Queen of England.
Engraved by Renold Elstrack, for publication by Sudbury & Humble.
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Leona Rostenberg has documented the considerable influence of the portrait engraving “which enjoyed a popularity similar to that of the cabinet photograph of the Victorian age” throughout the Stuart period within the 17th-century world of professional image-making and socio-political commentary.
The prevalence of prints within the middle-class home, where they had multiple uses including interior decoration, grew along with the picture-sellers’ trade. For example, mountable prints were advertised in 1680 as
by Richard Thompson, mezzotint dealer of the Sun in Bedford Berry.
And a full range of 17th-century conduct books and graphic design manuals instructed amateurs and professionals alike in the art of self-presentation, learned by studying “the best prints cut in copper.” The heroic posturings of 17th-century celebrities mostly royals and aristocrats were widely enough disseminated by way of portrait prints to have saturated Stuart-era visual culture.
That made Lely’s painting of Charles I with son, James, in 1647 remarkable in its picturing of royalty as a human, psychological state. Earlier portraits of Charles I by Van Dyck were heavily iconographic, showing the king, with crown and orb, in the full regalia of the ceremonial Order of the Garter:
|Charles I, in 1636.
Painted by Sir Anthony Van Dyck (15991641).
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|In her 2002 biography of Sir Christopher Wren (On a Grander Scale), Lisa Jardine argues that Order of the Garter artifacts were potent symbols, psychologically and politically, for royalists like Wren and his friend and colleague, Robert Hooke. As Dean of Windsor prior to the civil wars, Wren’s father had held a regal appointment as Registrar of the Order of the Garter. After the deanery at Windsor was ransacked, and the treasures and records of the Garter Order pillaged, Dean Wren and his family were evacuated to Bristol. Dean Wren took what Garter records he could safeguard with him, and later passed them on to Christopher, whose first responsibility after the return of Charles II to London on 29 May 1660 was to hand over to the new Dean of Windsor the Garter record books which his father had saved from destruction during the civil war.
The annual celebrations of the Order of the Garter recommenced with the restoration of Charles II, and Garter ceremonies were described in full by Elias Ashmole one of the earliest Fellows of the Royal Society (with which he was associated as early as 1661) who founded the first university chemical laboratory at Oxford in his book on the subject published in 1672.
But even during the royalists’ years of exile, Garter symbolism was still in play. For example, William Cavendish was given a Garter by Charles II on 12 January 1650, despite the fact that traditional Garter ceremonies could no longer be held at Windsor Castle, and it would take over 10 years before he could be invested. The investiture finally took place on 15 April 1661, with William’s son, Henry, serving as his proxy.
|Another ceremonial portrait of Charles I (ca. 1630s1640s), highlighting the insignia of the Knights of the Garter.
Painted by Sir Anthony Van Dyck (15991641).
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|Regalia of the Order of the Garter, with the St. George medallion (said to be the one Charles I wore on the scaffold), at bottom center.
Engraved plate by Wenceslaus Hollar from Elias Ashmole’s The institution, laws & ceremonies of the most noble Order of the Garter (London, 1672).
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When he later painted a middle-aged Charles II, restored to monarchical splendor and his inherited legacy as Stuart autocrat, Lely reverted to the more traditional visual idiom associated with kingship. Charles II is shown in Garter robes, with crown beside him.
|Charles II, ca. 1675.
Painted by Peter Lely (16181680).
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from Carol Wax, The Mezzotint: History and Technique (1990):
“Tompson was among the first printsellers to recognize the commercial potential of mezzotint, and he specialized in promoting the art form. With his help, mezzotint evolved from an amateur pastime to a professional engraver’s art. Although Dutch artists were creating original as well as copied images in mezzotint and exporting them to England, Tompson’s grasp of the British print market’s demands for popular imagery pushed mezzotint further in the direction of becoming a reproductive medium. Tompson realized that portraits were the most lucrative subjects and that prints by professional engravers reproducing portraits by well-known painters of personalities of interest to the British people sold especially well. Among the printed portraits being collected at this time were those of people belonging to or connected with the royal family, lesser nobles, famous clergy, landed gentry, and the growing population of wealthy businessmen and their family members.”
|Mezzotint of Charles II, King of England (late 17th-century).
Unknown mezzotinter, after painting by Peter Lely, for sale by Richard Tompson, the first active (ca. 1669-1693) London mezzotint dealer.
Richard Ollard points out that the softness of the mezzotint medium “mellows” the asperities of Charles II’s character, which are more pronounced in the Lely portrait of Charles II.
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Other artists would copy Lely’s style, giving Charles II an imperious, almost disdainful air. Something of the man’s less-than-ideal human character is revealed in his face.
|Charles II, ca. 1680.
Attributed to Thomas Hawker.
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• another look at the artfully-designed individual of “natural” virtue and title to authority, like Lely’s Charles I, in the GALLERY exhibit on the changing iconography of design
• discussion of Charles I’s most famous allegorical portrait the engraved frontispiece to Eikon Basilike and of emblematic picturing in general in the GALLERY exhibit on the Athenian Society’s emblem
• a study of the connections between psychological portraiture and new science theories of motionalism in the IN BRIEF topic on motism
• more on melancholic gentlemen like Lovelace “who had suffered frustration in their careers or who were out of tune with the prevailing political or religious attitudes of the day” in the Introduction to the GALLERY exhibit, “Portraits of Melancholy”
• Sir Peter Lely’s portrait of a melancholic Abraham Cowley in the Introduction to the GALLERY exhibit, “Portraits of Melancholy”
• more on the dialectical relationship between visual and verbal poetry in the GALLERY exhibit on Sor Juana’s portraiture
• further discussion of the Baroque understanding of the picture as “mute Poesie” (and poetry as “vocal Painting”) in the ISSUES web essay, “Pictures of the Thought”
• a digital transcription of Kircher’s disquisition (fully illustrated) concerning the Chinese character and language, Part VI of his China monumentis, qua sacris quà profanis, nec non variis naturæ & artis spectaculis ... (Amsterdam, 1667), in the LIBRARY
• a digital transcription of John Wilkins’ commentary on “the China Character and Language so much talked of in the world,” from Chapt. VI of Part IV of his An Essay towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language (London, 1668), in the LIBRARY
• more on Baroque verbal and visual play with east-west mergings and orientalist tropes in the GALLERY exhibit on the Ferrar maps of colonial Virginia
• a LIBRARY monograph (Robert Hooke’s Camera Designs) on the portable camera obscura Hooke demonstrated to Sir Peter Lely in 1675
• an IN BRIEF biography of England’s King James I
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