The sitter in this portrait, with his rounded chin, neat moustache, thin lips, aquiline nose, large lidded brown eyes, high set eyebrows and flowing long brown hair, appears to be the same man as both the violin player and the lute player in the Coombe paintings. If we are to accept them as depicting Lely himself then we must accept this as an early self portrait of the artist. The same man appears again in a number of Lely’s early paintings, most famously The Concert (The Courtauld Gallery, London), where he can be seen seated, centre-left of the composition playing a bass viol (also called a viola da gamba), looking over his shoulder to the female singer behind him. We know that Lely loved music and his musicians are all convincingly depicted, holding and playing their instruments correctly. The sitter’s physiognomy also closely relates to that in the artist’s self-portrait in coloured chalks that remained in the hands of Lely’s descendants until it was sold in these Rooms, on 6 July 2016, lot 216 (fig. 1).
Sir Oliver Millar commented of this picture that it belonged to that 'unexpectedly attractive phase of his [Lely’s] career before, not after, he had committed himself to becoming a successful and fashionable portrait painter in London. The works from this period are invariably delightful'.2 Be that as it may, Lely did rise to the challenge presented by English patronage and, filling the void left by the untimely death of Sir Anthony van Dyck, established himself as the foremost portraitist at the Restoration Court of King Charles II. Whilst his finest late works are rightly celebrated for their superlative baroque virtuosity, these much rarer early works have what the late Director of the Tate, Sir Norman Reid, described as a 'sombre but gracious realism' that is unsurpassed by any British seventeenth century artist.3
1 Coombe Abbey inventory, 1739 (Craven MS, cited by O. Millar, Sir Peter Lely 1618–80, exh. cat., National Portrait Gallery, London 1978, p. 41).
2 Private correspondence with the present owner, circa June 1995.
3 Sir Norman Reid to Lord Crawford, letter of 3 October 1966: Tate Archive, TG 4/2/1369/1.
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