Ever since his own lifetime, Sir Peter Lely has always been considered one of the outstanding artists to have worked in seventeenth century England. After his arrival in London in the early 1640s, he rose rapidly to the top of his profession and by the middle of the 1650s, his contemporaries were describing him as ‘the best artist in England’. 1 Soon after the Restoration, he was appointed Principal Painter to Charles II and his large-scale oil paintings seem to chronicle the sumptuous world of the King’s famously pleasure-seeking court.
However, alongside producing these celebrated canvases, Lely was also a marvellous draughtsman and these three portraits are fascinating examples of this less widely known aspect of his oeuvre. They belong to a highly-prized but small group of finished portrait drawings that Lely made as independent works of art and that Roger North, Lely’s friend and executor, described as ‘craions’ housed ‘in ebony frames’.
These finished drawings, of which the self-portrait must be considered the greatest example, illustrate that Lely was a draughtsman of such exceptional sophistication and technical virtuosity, that he not only surpassed his London-based contemporaries, but also deserves to be seen in an international context, as one of the great draughtsmen of his age.
The three portraits were made between circa 1655 and 1680, during one of the most turbulent periods in English history, which saw the collapse of the Commonwealth, the restoration of the Monarchy, three Anglo-Dutch Wars, the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London. Drawn by Sir Peter for himself and to be enjoyed by his family within their own home, the works are of great intimacy and importance.
Their provenance is equally remarkable, as all three drawings have remained in the possession of the artist’s direct descendants until this day.
1. R. B. Beckett, Lely, London 1951, p. 12
Sir Peter Lely: the artist and the man
Pieter van der Faes, known as Peter Lely, was born of Dutch parents in 1618 in the garrison town of Soest, Westphalia. His father took on the name ‘Lely’, as the house in which they lived bore the device of a lily on its gable. By 1637 he was apprenticed in the studio of Frans Pieterz de Grebber (1573-1649) in Haarlem, an important artistic centre at the time, where he spent at least two years.
Lely moved to England sometime between 1641 and 1643. Initially, according to his early biographer Bainbrigg Buckeridge (1668-1733), he ‘followed the natural bent of his genius and painted “landskip” with small figures, as likewise historical compositions, but at length finding face painting more encouraged here he turned his study that way, within, in a short time, he succeeded so well that he surpassed all his contemporaries’.1
He may well have also been encouraged to pursue portraiture in that Van Dyck, during his nine years in England up to his death in 1641, had greatly strengthened the fashion for that genre. Despite the turmoil of the Civil War, the potential for patronage amongst the English elite may have appeared tempting.
He lodged at first in London with the artist-dealer George Geldorp, who was able to initiate some powerful connections and by the mid 1640s he had undertaken commissions for families including the Percys, Cecils and Sidneys.
Throughout the Civil War patronage appears to have continued on both sides of the political divide and Lely continued to build his reputation. In 1647 he was made a freeman of the London Painter-Stainers Company, thereby freeing him from the restrictions imposed on previous Netherlandish artists and enabling him to take on apprentices. In the same year the Earl of Northumberland commissioned him, as Van Dyck’s natural successor, to paint a double portrait of the King and his brother the Duke of York.
After Charles I’s death in 1649 and from the beginning of eleven years of Parliamentarian rule under Cromwell, Lely continued to prosper. In 1654, he painted Oliver Cromwell, who famously insisted on a true representation, including ‘pimples, warts and everything as you see [in] me’, together with many other figures in the Protector’s close circle.2
Meanwhile, Lely kept in touch with the exiled Charles II’s court in Holland and visited that country in 1656 with his friend, the royalist architect Hugh May. Following the Restoration in 1660, as one of the most sought-after portraitists in London, he was made official court painter with a substantial annual pension. Throughout this decade he painted many leading figures of the period, including the celebrated twelve aristocratic ladies, known as ‘The Windsor Beauties’, commissioned by the Duchess of York, and the ‘Flagmen series’, commissioned by her husband the Duke, depicting the great admirals who had defeated the Dutch at the Battle of Lowestoft in 1665.
In 1666 Samuel Pepys commented, when visiting Lely with his friend Sir William Penn, that he was ‘so full of work… that he could only give Sir William a sitting six days ahead, between seven and eight in the morning’.3 Such pressure of work resulted in the need to increase considerably the number of assistants in his studio. However, throughout the next decade, he himself continued to undertake and complete important commissions, including one of Charles’ mistress Nell Gwyn in the guise of Venus and another of Mary of Modena, future wife of James II of England.
Alongside his great success as the leading portrait artist of his generation - comfortably following in the footsteps of his predecessor Van Dyck - Lely was one of the great collectors of prints and drawings. His executor, Roger North catalogued 10,000 objects, many of which are now in the world’s foremost collections. His collection included many drawings by Italian artists, which enabled him, without visiting Italy, to understand better the characteristics of the art of that country. Overall, in the history of collecting, Lely ranks alongside and arguably outstrips, in terms of the sheer quality and consistency of his drawings, subsequent pre-eminent artist-collectors such as Jonathan Richardson, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Benjamin West and Sir Thomas Lawrence.
From 1650 Lely lived and worked in the Grand Piazza of Covent Garden, close to the centre of fashionable London. ‘His studio was carefully designed with light sources coming from a number of angles, while the rest of the house was carefully appointed, perhaps echoing Lely’s awareness of the lavish lodgings Van Dyck had maintained at Blackfriars, adorned with his marvellously rich collection of Old Master and contemporary paintings, drawings and prints before the Civil War.’4
He was evidently of affable nature and a good host; as Pepys noted in his diary, ‘he lives very gently and treated us nobly at a Dinner’. 5 Charles II once remarked that he ‘would often times take great pleasure in his [Lely’s], conversation, which he found to be as agreeable as his pencil’. 6
Peter Lely was knighted in 1680 and died later the same year with a confirmed reputation as ‘an artist of outstanding invention and skill, both a chronicler of his age and a painter who could transport those who viewed his works to paradisiacal realms of dream and imagination’. 7
1. Bainbrigg Buckeridge, writing in Roger de Piles’s The Art of Painting and the Lives of the Painters, (1706) cited in: Peter Lely, A Lyrical Vision, exhibition catalogue, London, Courtauld Gallery, 2012, p. 34
2. Ibid, p. 21
3. R.B. Beckett, Lely, London 1951, p. 18
4. Peter Lely, A Lyrical Vision, op. cit., p. 22
5. O. Millar, Sir Peter Lely 1618-80, exhibition catalogue, London National Portrait Gallery, 1978, p. 15
6. Peter Lely, A Lyrical Vision, op. cit., p. 39
7. Ibid, p. 24
This portrait, with its grand scale, its sophisticated techniques and subtle and yet electrifying atmosphere, is one of the most powerful and important of all drawings created in 17th century England. It can be appreciated as one of the great highlights of Sir Peter Lely’s long and brilliant career and having always remained in the artist’s family, it is offered for sale for the first time.
Samuel Pepys described Lely as ‘the great painter’1 but he was also regarded as a ‘well-bred gentleman, friendly and free, and not only adept in his art but communicative’.2 These two attributes, his exceptional gift of draughtsmanship and his affable nature, are reflected in this self-portrait, one of only two in existence.3
The artist presents himself as a quietly self-assured young man in his mid to late thirties, leaning against a stone plinth with a classical back-drop. His long natural hair, his doublet and frilled cuffs, together with ornamental cloak indicate that the drawing was made during the second half of the 1650s, towards the end of the Cromwellian era, when arguably Lely was producing his ‘most sympathetic and psychologically interesting portraits’.4
The drawing is an exceptional illustration of Lely’s supreme skill as a draughtsman and combines a wonderfully light touch with a confident rhythm. Feathery stokes of black chalk, interspersed with subtle use of red and yellow chalk, finished off with white chalk highlighting, together produce an extraordinary fluency and softness, particularly in the hair and face. In places the use of sharp chalk-point gives a powerfully contrasting and crisp effect. The dynamic qualities of this drawing and his mastery of the medium by this stage in his career, is highlighted when the work is compared with his only other surviving self-portrait drawing, executed circa 1641, which is tentative and formulaic by contrast. (fig. 1)
Lely’s working methods and technique appear to have been considered innovative by his contemporaries. In the summer of 1663 the Dutchman, Christiaan Huygens, visited the artist’s studio on several occasions and was particularly impressed by the portrait drawings that he saw. Writing to his brother in Holland, he recorded that Lely favoured ‘pale grey’ paper and limited the ‘use of colour to the face alone, and there only lightly’.5 So great was his interest that Lely directed him to the man who made his crayons and this visit enabled Huygens to record the process in great detail, explaining that the finished colours were ‘easy to write with’ and ‘never become hard’.6
Although Lely’s materials may have seemed novel, the present work can be viewed as part of the wider European tradition of highly finished portrait drawings that, in England, began in the early 16th Century with Holbein’s iconic portraits of the Tudor court. A century later, artists were continuing to make such drawings and a particularly fine example is perhaps Rubens’ portrait of Thomas, 2nd Earl of Arundel, whom he portrayed with such force and charisma in inks and chalks at the end of the 1620s.
Closer still to Lely was Van Dyck, whose influence on European art was universal. Although he largely made drawings in order to clarify the compositions for his paintings, in the late 1620s and early 1630s he too produced a small group of highly worked-up portrait drawings that depicted friends, fellow artists, military leaders and members of Charles I’s court. These works were engraved and the prints - known later as the Icongraphie - were widely distributed. Lely, in general, was influenced by this important series and in the present drawing, the composition, his pose and the overall sense of gravitas, echo those found for instance in Van Dyck’s depictions of Orazio Gentileschi and Hendrick van Steenwijck. (fig. 2)
Alongside Van Dyck’s works on paper, Lely may well have had in mind the elder artist’s great oil self-portraits. The famous painting of Van Dyck with a Sunflower was widely known by 1644, through Wenceslaus Hollar’s etching, while Lely is thought himself to have owned Van Dyck’s strikingly confident Self-Portrait (fig. 3), which was painted in 1640 and is now in the National Gallery, London.
As a portrait painter, who arrived in England soon after the death of Van Dyck in 1641, Lely’s patrons would have been constantly judging him against the achievements of the Flemish master. By the middle of the 1650s, Lely was generally acknowledged to be the ‘best artist in England’,7 and in many respects this self-portrait shows that he both accepted and deserved this flattering accolade. However, despite his great success on the national stage, the drawing, with its virtuosity, confidence and sheer presence, demonstrates that Lely saw himself as part of the international artistic community and that he was determined to challenge himself to compete not only with the greatest European artists of his own day but also with those that had come before.
1. O. Millar, Sir Peter Lely 1618-80, London 1978, p. 17
2. Ibid, p. 22
3. Three self-portraits painted in oil also survive; one dates to circa 1661 and is now in the National Gallery, London, another: Self-portrait with Hugh May was painted in circa 1675 and is in the collection at Audley End House, Essex and the last is in the Uffizi Museum, Florence, having been acquired by Cosimo III de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, in 1706.
4. Peter Lely, A Lyrical Vision, exhibition catalogue, London, Courtauld Gallery, 2012, p. 56
5. C. Eilser, ‘Apparatus and Grandeur: Five Portrait Drawings from Clarendon’s ‘History’’, Master Drawings, vol. 6, no. 2 (1962), p. 150
7. R.B. Beckett, Lely, London 1951, p. 12
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