As with the self-portrait and the portrait of John’s mother, Ursula, this work forms part of a small group of highly worked-up portrait drawings that, according to Lely’s executor Roger North, were housed ‘in ebony frames’.1
The present drawing was made within the last eighteen months of Sir Peter’s life, when John was eleven or twelve years old and is remarkable for the strength of execution and sureness of line, from an artist who by then was in his sixties.
It is dated both 1679 and 1680 and appears to have been worked on in two stages. Lely recorded the delicate features of his son’s face, the play of light in the long wavy hair and John’s slight frame, with a typically confident handling of chalks. Later, he changed his mind about the function of the orb in John’s hands and carefully drew in two Latin crosses in black and red chalks. Other elements of the composition, however, such as the strongly coloured robe and the hatching in the background, are unexpected and these areas have led some scholars to question whether the drawing could have been finished by a member of Lely’s studio.
John Lely was born in 1668 and grew up, with his elder sister Anne, between his father’s house in fashionable Covent Garden and the quieter atmosphere of the family’s country home at Kew Green in Richmond. Sadly, he was only six when his mother died and twelve when he lost his father.
Thankfully, before his death, Sir Peter had made arrangements for his children’s welfare. Anne was to be cared for by his friend Hugh May and stood to inherit £3,000 - a handsome sum at the time - when she turned eighteen or married, while he appointed Roger North to act as John’s guardian.
Sir Peter placed in trust for John his house in Kew Green, Richmond and his two estates in Lincolnshire, at Willingham and Greetwell, as well as instructing his executors to sell his celebrated art collection to provide for his son and heir. The series of sales of his ‘moveable effects, including his collection of paintings, sculpture, prints and drawings’2 took place between 1681 and 1694 and raised funds sufficient to set John up as an independent gentleman of some means.
John seems to have been a wayward youth and North at times found him troublesome. In his diaries, he complained that, while at Harrow, his charge had been ‘much given to mean company’3 and afterwards, when he was installed within the household of North’s nephew, Lord Guilford, his ‘bad language and habits made him unfit to be continued there’.4 North’s solution was to send John for a brief spell to the Continent, in the company of a tutor from Gascony, called Gerault.
On his return to England in 1689, six months before his twenty-first birthday, John married Elizabeth Knatchbull, the daughter of Sir John Knatchbull, but she died three years later. He continued to live at Kew Green, Richmond and in 1693 married Ann, daughter of Richard Mounteney of Kew. The couple had five children, all boys, and at some point moved north to Greetwell and the house which Sir Peter had leased from the Dean and Chapter of Lincoln. John died in November 1728 and is buried in New Chapel Yard, Lincoln.
1. Editorial, ‘Sir Peter Lely’s Collection,’ Burlington Magazine, vol. 83, (1943), p. 188
2. Diana Dethloff, ‘The Executors’ Account Book and The Dispersal of Sir Peter Lely’s Collection,’ Journal of the History of Collections, vol. 8, no. 1 (1996), p. 16
3. Roger North, Notes of Me – The Affairs of Sir Peter Lely, Toronto 2000, p. 249
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