Provocative portrait by Peter Lely at Sotheby’s

   |  5 July 2011  |  AMA  |  Tweet  |  LinkedIn

London, 5 July 2011, Art Media Agency (AMA).

Sir Peter Lely’s Nell Gwyn naked leaning on a bed is one of the most erotic paintings in the history of British art. The portrait of King Charles II’s mistress was commissioned by the monarch himself and has been estimated at £600,000 to £800,000. The work will be on auction at the Sotheby’s Old Master sale on 6 July 2011.

The portrait was purchased at the great Lowther Castle sale in 1947 and subsequently went to Chiddingstone Castle, where it remained until 2007. At Lowther, the painting was one of forty seventeenth-century pictures and was known as Portrait of Nell Gwynn as Venus reclining in a landscape with a cupid and a stone vase by her side. It is not known when the artwork entered the Lonsdale collection, but Henry Lowther, the third Viscount of Lonsdale, could have acquired the work from Buckingham Palace. The first time the portrait appeared in a major exhibition was in 1956, when Sir Oliver Millar concluded that the portrait “may be the portrait in the King’s and Buckingham’s collections.” When preparing the catalogue for the 1972 Lely exhibition, he also noted that “the portrait cannot be linked decisively” to Nell Gwynn and suggested that it might be a representation of the Duchess of Cleveland.

However, there are two arguments against this version. Firstly, the portrait dates from the mid-1660’s, a period when the Duchess was not yet considered one of the King’s favourites. Furthermore, it would be highly unusual for a woman of aristocratic origin to be depicted in this pose. It would seem that the most convincing answer is that the work is an idealised portrait of Nell Gwynn. Malcolm Rogers, one of the greatest specialists in seventeenth-century portraiture, has worked at the National Portrait Gallery in London for nineteen years and has always believed that the woman in the painting is Nell Gwynn. The spirited actress was one of the most popular and well-known women of her time.

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