Curating Peter Lely: A Lyrical vision

Dr Caroline Campbell, Curator of Peter Lely: A Lyrical Vision

Over fifteen years ago I embarked on an MA studying Renaissance art history at The Courtauld Institute of Art. The next year was one of the most intellectually demanding but exhilarating times of my life.

When my studies got too much for me, I ran into The Courtauld Gallery for solace. I found myself repeatedly in front of Peter Lely’s The Concert.

Peter Lely, The Concert, c. 1650

Peter Lely, The Concert, c. 1650 © The Courtauld Gallery, London

I’ve always found the troubled history of seventeenth-century England fascinating, and I was perplexed by this painting of musicians and beautiful women sat in an idyllic landscape.

They looked so serene and free of cares, but I knew that the picture dated from the turbulent period between the Civil War and the Restoration of Charles II, when England lost its king and a common sense of purpose.

What could this all mean?

The exhibition, Peter Lely: A Lyrical Vision, represents my researches – some more fruitful than others – into this intriguing and compelling work.

Lely was brought up and trained in Holland, and like many artists before and after him, he came to England to make his fortune.

Unlike many of them he stayed, becoming a naturalised Englishman, and Principal Painter to King Charles II.

Lely is a familiar figure to anyone who has visited a stately home. He painted everyone who was anybody in Restoration England, and portraits by him and his workshop abound.

Portrait of Sir Thomas Thynne, later 1st Viscount Weymouth

Peter Lely, Portrait of Sir Thomas Thynne © The Courtauld Gallery, London. This image is currently displayed in Room 2 of The Courtauld Gallery

Lely, however, had not mapped out this particular career plan.

All the early writings about him assert that his first ambition was to be a painter of narrative and genre scenes, often drawn from the Bible or from literature, and set in landscapes.

This was by far the most prestigious career for an artist trained in Holland but it didn’t meet with approval in England.

Lely’s friend, the cavalier poet Richard Lovelace, condemned the ‘transalpine barbarous neglect’ of English patrons, who only looked for ‘their own dull counterfeits’ and those of their ‘varnish’d Idol-Mistresses’.

Despite this, Lely was slow to abandon his ‘subject pictures’. He painted them throughout the 1640s and ’50s, and this is the first exhibition to look in depth at this significant but under-studied aspect of Lely’s art.

Many of these subject paintings represent people and subjects close to the artist’s heart.

The Rape of Europa, now at Chatsworth, depicts female models who appear again and again in Lely’s early English works, and the painting remained in Lely’s possession until his death.

Peter Lely, The Rape of Europa, early 1650s © Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth

Peter Lely, The Rape of Europa, early 1650s © Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth

The Concert is perhaps the most personal of Lely’s pictures.

The central figure, the musician who unites the composition, is probably Lely himself. It remains unclear what this probably unfinished picture represents, but it is likely to be a highly personal and allegorical interpretation of the timeless theme of Music in the service of Love and Beauty.

Peter Lely, The Concert (detail) c. 1650 © The Courtauld Gallery, London

Peter Lely, The Concert (detail) c. 1650 © The Courtauld Gallery, London

From the snatches of comments in a range of 17th-century sources, from the writings of Samuel Pepys to the diary of the husband of Lely’s student Mary Beale, we can glean some information about Lely.

He was hard-working, generous, sometimes proud, but gregarious, charming, and very good company.

Yet there is much that we don’t know about Lely, particularly about his artistic production before the Restoration, and why he abandoned narrative paintings.

The number of his subject pictures is also uncertain. He seems to have made about thirty, but I suspect that others are lurking under the names of other painters, or in French Châteaux and German Schlösser, let alone British attics.

I hope this show gives further impetus to their discovery.


Peter Lely: A Lyrical Vision will be on display from 11 October 2012 – 13 January 2013

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