Peter Lely: The Draughtsman and His Collection

Dr Rachel Sloan, Assistant Curator of Works on Paper

Peter Lely’s dazzling early paintings have been on view at The Courtauld Gallery for a month now. But did you know that you can also discover two different sides of the artist here?

A display of drawings in Room 12, on the top floor of the Gallery, reveals two other Lelys – the draughtsman and the collector of drawings.

Lely was the first artist in England to amass a major collection of prints and drawings.

Sadly, no inventory was ever made of his collection during his lifetime, but his executor stamped each drawing with a distinctive ‘PL’ mark in advance of his posthumous sale.

Thanks to this mark, we can now find drawings Lely owned in museums around the world.

The Courtauld is fortunate to own a representative sample of Lely’s collection.

He had a particular enthusiasm for the work of 16th century Italian artists, and you’ll find two drawings by one of his favourites, Parmigianino, in the display.

Parmigianino, Sheet of studies (recto)

Parmigianino, Sheet of studies (recto), c. 1522-1523

Elsewhere, you’ll find a copy of Michelangelo’s first design for the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel (notably different from the final fresco) and a dashing sketch of St Mark by Fra Bartolommeo whose curving lines suggest the speed at which the artist worked, to name just a few.

Fra Bartolommeo, Study for 'Saint Mark'

Fra Bartolommeo, Study for Saint Mark, c. 1514

Why did Lely collect drawings? He had a number of reasons. His collection was a way of displaying his taste and social status; it also served as a substitute for foreign travel (because of the demands of his practice as a portraitist, he never found the time to visit Italy).

But one of Lely’s chief reasons for collecting was to seek inspiration for his own work. Many of the drawings he collected were figure and drapery studies; he studied them for ideas for his portraits, and sometimes even incorporated a pose from a particular drawing into one of his paintings.

Study of two heralds in ceremonial dress

Peter Lely, Study of two heralds in ceremonial dress, c. 1667

Three delicate chalk studies of hands, arms and drapery for portraits suggest that Lely took the lessons learned from his collection very much to heart.

But for an example of Lely’s draughtsmanship at its boldest and most self-assured, look no further than his study of two heralds in the ceremonial dress of the Order of the Garter.

The drawing captures the confidence and grandeur of Restoration-era England as ably as any of Lely’s painted portraits.