Lot 55
  • 55

ATTRIBUTED TO SIR PETER LELY AND STUDIO | Portrait of Elizabeth Trentham, Viscountess Cullen, as Venus

80,000 - 120,000 GBP
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  • Portrait of Elizabeth Trentham, Viscountess Cullen, as Venus
  • Full length, nude, recumbent on a divan, drawing back a curtain to reveal a balustrade with a pair of doves, a villa and landscape beyond
  • oil on canvas
  • 129 by 196cm., 50¾ by 77¼ in.


The sitter’s husband, Brien Cokayne, 2nd Viscount Cullen (1631-1687), Rushton Hall, Northamptonshire, circa 1660; By descent to Charles Cokayne (later Cockayne), 5th Viscount Cullen (1710-1802);

By inheritance to his eldest son from his second marriage, the Hon. William Cockayne (1756-1809), of Rushton Hall, Governor of Limerick Castle, Ireland, circa 1780;

By inheritance to his youngest daughter, Elizabeth Charlotte Cockayne (1798-1883), who married the Hon. Edmond Sexton Pery (1797-1860), fourth son of Edmund Pery, 1st Earl of Limerick (1758-1844);

By descent to Edmund H. Cockayne Pery, Coolcronan House, Ballina, Co. Mayo, Ireland, circa 1890;

By family inheritance to Edmund Arthur Gore Pery-Knox-Gore, circa 1900;

By descent to Simon Pery-Knox-Gore, Blackheath, London, circa 1965,

Thence by family descent to a private collection in Devon, until sold;

Exeter (Devon), Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood, 11 July 2017 lot 402 (as Studio of Sir Peter Lely), where acquired by the present owner.


G. E. Cokayne, The Complete Peerage of England, Scotland, Ireland, Great Britain and the United Kingdom, ed. by Hon. V. Gibbs, 6 vols., London 1913, vol. III, p. 563 (described as 'when about 16, recumbent and whole length, as Venus, perfectly nude. This last is a picture of great merit and beauty.'); O. Millar, Sir Peter Lely, NPG exh. cat., London 1978, p. 62;

A. Laing, 'Sir Peter Lely and Sir Ralph Banks', in D. Howarth (ed.), Art and Patronage in the Caroline Courts, Cambridge 1993, pp. 117 & 129-30, fn. 27 (where recorded in the possession of Myles Pery-Knox-Gore at Coolcronan, Ballina, in 1949).


The painting is in good, stable overall condition with no apparent extant damages or loss of paint. The canvas has a firm lining, which is providing a stable support for the picture, although on close inspection the surface of the paint has been pressed and the paint surface is quite abraded, especially in the darks. Despite this the image retains its coherence overall and has strong wall impact. Examination under ultraviolet light reveals numerous scattered small retouchings and infilling throughout, particularly in the sitter's stomach and thighs, in the dark area of the drapery to the right of her outstretched arm and in the draperies of the bed, lower right. There is a repaired old vertical tear, approximately 3 inches long, running through the sitter's lower shin and there is an area of more concentrated retouching to an old damage in the centre of the foliage of the background landscape. There is also a small area of more concentrated retouching in the curtain on the right hand side. There is a thin horizontal line of retouching along lower section of the canvas, about five inches from the bottom – possibly to a canvas join or where the canvas has been folded over at some stage. There are a small number of further scattered minor retouchings to old damages. The picture is held in a carved gilt wood frame in good condition.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

This alluringly provocative and sensationally erotic painting is exceptionally rare in British art of this period, and though its existence has been known, it is only sparsely documented in the literature and has not knowingly been seen in public since its original creation. First referred to as one of two portraits of Lady Cullen by Lely still in the possession of her descendants in G. E. Cokayne’s The Complete Peerage of England, where it was described as a ‘picture of great merit and beauty’, it was known to Sir Oliver Millar and Alastair Laing but has otherwise received little attention from scholars, having descended through an obscure branch of the sitter’s family and remained in a little known private collection until now.1     What is most astonishing about this picture is the fact that it is not simply an allegorical representation of Venus or an anonymous nude, but a portrait. Known as ‘the beautiful Lady Cullen’, Elizabeth Trentham, Viscountess Cullen (1640-1713) was Lady of the Bedchamber to Queen Catherine and a celebrated Restoration Court beauty of equivocal reputation – notorious for her physical charm, her extravagance and her immorality. The daughter of Sir Francis Trentham of Rocester Priory, in Staffordshire, and wife of Brian Cokayne, 2nd Viscount Cullen (1631-1687), she was a considerable heiress, inheriting not only the Trentham family estates in Staffordshire but also those of the de Vere family, Earls of Oxford, at Castle Hedingham in Essex, which provided her with an independent income of £6,000 a year. Such was her extravagance, however, that she ran through it all, and in 1676 her husband had to obtain a private Act of Parliament to break the entail so as to pay her debts and raise portions for their children. Although little information survives today about her supposed activities she was, it is claimed, ‘very coarsely alluded to’ in the scurrilous State Poems – the extensive collection of satirical verse often composed by many of the leading poets of the age, including Dryden, Waller, Marvell and Rochester, as well as lesser literary hacks, that was circulated among the Restoration Court as manuscripts or occasionally as printed broadsides lampooning the political and social elite – and the very fact that she was prepared to have herself painted entirely naked, in quite such a provocative and alluring manner, is a strong indication of her character. 

Lely painted another, more conventional portrait of Lady Cullen (Kingston Lacy, National Trust). Conceived very much in the manner of his Windsor and Althorp series, three-quarter length, wearing a yellow satin dress, the number of versions after that picture underscores her reputation as a ‘Beauty’ and indicate the prominence of her contemporary fame. This composition, however, is unique and no other versions are known to exist. The intimacy of the subject strongly suggests that it was a private, one off commission, requested either by her husband or by Lady Cullen herself. Given what we know of her status as a financially independent and extremely wealthy heiress, the pose – lying stretched out on a richly draped divan, her naked body turned to the viewer as she draws back a curtain to reveal a Palladian villa surrounded by lush parkland – takes on a heavily loaded meaning and it may well be that the painting was intended as an extravagant piece of self-advertising. Seventeenth century descriptions of what was considered attractive and erotic sound strikingly accessible to modern ears and the following contemporary prose could easily have been written about the woman we see laid out before us.

‘She was the beautifullest creature I ever saw: a fine, easy, clean shape; light brown hair in abundance; her features regular; her complexion clear and lively; large, wanton eyes; but above all, a mouth that has made me kiss it a thousand times in imagination; teeth white and even; and pretty, pouting lips, with a little moisture ever hanging on them, that look like the Provence rose fresh on the bush ere the morning sun has quite drawn up the dew.’ (George Etherege, The Man of Mode, 1676)

The figure of a recumbent female nude in the guise of Venus – the ancient Roman goddess of love, whose virtues embodied beauty, seduction, fertility, desire and sex – has a long history in Western Art. It is an image that first appears in Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus of circa 1510 (Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden, fig. 1), much, or all, of which is now thought by modern scholars to be the work of Giorgione’s pupil, Titian. Whilst nude or semi-nude depictions of Venus had appeared in Western Art before, the Dresden Venus was the first of a genre that came to be known as the erotic mythological pastoral and established the precedent for a horizontal full length reclining nude, depicted close up to the picture plain, dominating the canvas, her limbs outstretched with only the fingers of her left hand delicately covering her pudendum. The image is most famously known, however, from Titian’s slightly later and more celebrated Venus of Urbino, painted circa 1532-8 (Uffizi Gallery, Florence, fig. 2), which serves as the ultimate model for Lely’s portrait of Lady Cullen. Unlike in the Dresden Venus, which is set in a pastoral landscape that lends at least a veneer of mythological respectability to the subject, Titian domesticates his Venus, moving her into an interior and engaging her directly with the viewer – both of which serve to make her sensuality explicit. Devoid as it is of any classical or allegorical trappings, and displaying none of the attributes of the goddess she is supposed to represent, Titian’s Venus is unapologetically erotic and alluring, displaying what Edgar Wind described as ‘an undisguised hedonism [that] had at last dispelled the Platonic metaphors’.2

The powerful sexuality of Titian’s image has excited, aroused, provoked and disturbed ever since. Mark Twain, in his 1880 travelogue A Tramp Abroad, called the Venus of Urbino ‘the foulest, the vilest, the obscenest picture the world possesses’, yet it is an enduring image that has consistently influenced artists and connoisseurs from generation to generation.  Most famously the French nineteenth century proto-Impressionist painter Édouard Manet directly referenced Titian’s Venus of Urbino in his equally celebrated painting Olympia (Musée d’Orsay, Paris, fig. 3), first exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1865 – a painting that caused huge controversy at its public unveiling; and Ingres’ Grand Odalisque of 1814 (The Louvre, Paris) drew on the same source material. In the seventeenth century, artists such as Guido Reni, Gentileschi and Velázquez – whose Rokeby Venus is one of the most lauded and infamous nudes in Western Art – were all influenced and inspired by Titian’s model. Indeed Lely’s composition here is derived almost directly from another early seventeenth-century variant of the subject; a painting now attributed to Giovanni Antonio Galli, called lo Spadarino, of Venus with Doves, (York Art Gallery, inv. no. 813), which was first recorded in a French collection, when it was engraved by Louis-Simon Lempereur, in 1781, as by Annibale Carracci with the title L’attente du Plaisir (‘The Expectation of Pleasure’), and was for many years in the 20th century thought to be by Domenichino.

However, the image is exceptionally rare in British art of this period – indeed this is possibly the only fully nude portrait painted in England in that century. The only comparable is Lely’s own, comparatively demur, portrait of the infamous royal mistress Nell Gwyn depicted with her son as Venus and Cupid (Private Collection, England, fig. 4), which was painted for her lover, Charles II, and famously concealed behind a sliding screen camouflaged with a landscape painting by Dankerts in the King’s private apartments at Whitehall. In that painting, however, her modesty is preserved by a small fold of linen bed sheet which ‘Cupid’ drapes between her legs, and one arm is covered by a blue satin robe. She is otherwise naked and engages the viewer, but her expression is passive and her body language submissive. Here, however, there are no wisps of fabric to hide the sitter’s modesty, no supporting cast of characters with which to string out a mythological narrative of allegory (save for a somewhat suggestive pair of coupling doves). Her body language is confident, seductive and assured; she pulls back the drape invitingly and fixes the viewer with a firm gaze and a lascivious twinkle in the eye. It is an extraordinarily provocative image for the period – her expression has more in common with the confrontational glare of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (Museum of Modern Art, New York), of two and a half centuries later, than with contemporary works such as Guido Reni’s Reclining Venus with Cupid (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts), the composition of which is otherwise strikingly similar to Lely’s work. 

The Restoration Court of King Charles II, and his brother the Duke of York (later James II), was notoriously licentious. The example was set by the King himself whose general attitude to government was succinctly summarised in Andrew Marvell’s On the Lord Mayor and Court of Alderman, of 1674, in which he described Charles II thus: ‘He spends all his days / In running to plays / When he should on his books be pouring; / And he wastes all his nights / In the constant delights / Of revelling, drinking and whoring.’ Sexual tensions ran high in an environment dominated by the Queen’s Maids of Honour – young, beautiful, highborn girls, many barely more than teenagers, who were expected to add lustre and sparkle to the Royal entourage – and the King’s courtiers – rich, powerful men separated from their estates, their wives and their families, where flirtation, gossip, fornication and adultery were not only tolerated, but encouraged. The Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 also saw the first legitimate appearance of women on the public stage, and in a world of court masques, political satires and royal pageantry a new type of woman – the actress – became an increasingly prominent figure in court circles. As Brett Dolman explored in his catalogue for the 2012 Hampton Court exhibition Beauty Sex and Power: A Story of Debauchery and Decadent Art at the Late Stuart Court, the sexual revolution of the late seventeenth century in England enabled women to use their beauty as a tradable commodity to acquire wealth and influence in a way that had previously been impossible. A classic example of this, and probably the most extreme, is the story of Nell Gwyn, one of the King’s principal mistresses (and the only other English woman known to have had her portrait painted fully naked in the seventeenth century). Born into poverty, she began life as a humble Covent Garden fruit seller, but rose to become one of the most influential women at Court, and within her own lifetime would see her eldest son created Duke of St Albans. Amidst this febrile Court culture there arose a fashion for provocative female portraiture, epitomised in the work of Sir Peter Lely by portraits such as those of Diana Kirke, Countess of Oxford (Yale Centre for British Art, New Haven), Louise de Kéroualle, suo jure Duchess of Portsmouth as a Shepherdess (Spencer Collection, Althorp) and the ‘Windsor Beauties’ series, or Benedetto Gennari’s Portrait of Elizabeth Howard as Cleopatra (Kingston Lacy, National Trust). Even by the standards of Restoration England, however, the present painting is exceptional in its overt eroticism and provocative nudity.

1. Laing, p. 130.

2. E. Wind, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance, London 1967, p. 141