Sotheby's Old Masters Evening Sale on 4 July features a magnificent work by Sir Peter Lely, painted to celebrate the marriage of Lord Cornbury and Theodosia Capel in 1661. This double portrait is one of the greatest and most sophisticated conversation pieces Peter Lely ever produced. Indeed it is one of the finest baroque double portraits by any artist to have been painted in England, testament to which was its inclusion, as the only such painting from the seventeenth century, in the seminal Swagger Portraits exhibition at the Tate Gallery in 1992-93.

The eldest son of Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon (1609-1674) and his second wife Frances Aylesbury, daughter of the Master of the Mint, Sir Thomas Aylesbury, 1st. Bt (1676-1657), Lord Cornbury was private secretary and Lord Chamberlain to Queen Catherine, wife of King Charles II. Through his sister, Anne Hyde, he was also the brother-in-law of James, Duke of York, later King James II and the uncle of two British monarchs: Queen Mary II and Queen Anne. In January 1661 he married Theodosia, daughter of Arthur Capel, 1st Baron Capel (1608-1649) and this magnificent double portrait was commissioned to celebrate their union.

Whilst Lord Cornbury gestures towards his new young bride, making specific reference to their relationship, Lady Cornbury reaches up to pick at the orange blossom growing beside her – a flower that has been associated with marriage since antiquity, as a symbol of purity, chastity, innocence, and fertility. The subtle contrapposto of the couple's poses mirror one another, creating a delicate sense of harmony and unity within the painting – the husband’s self-referential hand gesture matched by the slight incline of his wife’s head, her resting arm matched by the sweep of his gesticulating hand – each a subtle counterpoint to the other, brilliantly reinforcing the rhetorical force of the picture. Between the couple, partially obscured by a draped red curtain, stands a statue of Cupid – a symbol of romantic love – further strengthening the allusion to their recent marriage.

The composition is exceptionally sophisticated and, as Andrew Wilton noted in his catalogue to the Swagger Portrait exhibition, either figure would be amply self-sufficient in elegance and rhythm on their own. Whilst many of Lely’s double portraits are crowded into the picture-space, allowing little latitude for the expansiveness of mood found in this picture, here the artist has excelled himself, with the roomier design allowing for the development of each figure both individually and in relation to each other, seemingly both engaged in separate dialogues with the spectator whilst at the same time intimately bound a visual relationship of their own.

SKETCH OF THE PICTURE HANG AT THE GROVE, HERTFORDSHIRE, CIRCA 1824, THE HOME OF THOMAS VILLIERS, 2ND EARL OF CLARENDON, SHOWING THE PRESENT LOT HANGING ABOVE THE FIREPLACE IN THE DINING ROOM.

The half-length double portrait is a format that was popularised in the Low Countries in the early seventeenth century and much used by Van Dyck, who brought the tradition with him from the continent and adapted it with creative enthusiasm, developing it into perhaps the most ‘English’ of his formulas. Reynolds would later adopt it in the eighteenth century and pass it on as a staple device to Lawrence, with whom the tradition ended in England, given up in favour of the more flamboyant full-length double portraits favoured by Sargent and the family conversation piece proper in the era of the Grand Manner. It can be strongly claimed, however, that it reached its pinnacle in Lely’s virtuoso portrait of Lord and Lady Cornbury.

VIEW OF CLARENDON HOUSE, LONDON, BUILT BY THE 1ST EARL OF CLARENDON IN 1664  © BRIDGEMAN.

If the symbolism within the painting was not enough, the picture could be accurately dated by the fact that Theodosia tragically died of smallpox in March 1662, only fourteen months after their wedding. Shortly before her death she gave birth to a son, Edward Hyde, later 3rd Earl of Clarendon (1661-1723). He went on to become famous, when, in 1688, as Lord Cornbury, he and part of his army defected from the Catholic King James II – his uncle by marriage – to join forces with Prince William of Orange, thus triggering the bloodless handover of power that was the Glorious Revolution. As a reward for this he was appointed Governor of New York and New Jersey in 1701.

The portrait is part of the celebrated Clarendon Gallery collection, formed by the sitter’s father, which was formerly housed at Clarendon House in London and Cornbury Park in Oxfordshire.

Many of the portraits in the collection were given to Clarendon by the sitters themselves, either as genuine acts of friendship and loyalty or in order to curry political favour, whilst others were acquired from the various sales of dispossessed families following the political upheavals of the Civil War. What portraits Clarendon could not get hold of in the original, however, he had copied by Lely and his studio and he also commissioned the artist for autograph portraits of his friends and contemporaries.

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