Small but perfectly formed
October 22 2012
Picture: Dulwich Picture Gallery
The Courtauld's new show Peter Lely - a Lyrical Vision, which looks at Lely's early works, is one of the best small exhibitions I've ever seen. If you haven't yet been, go. If you live abroad, book a flight. Happily, I didn't see much sign of the nonsense put out in the Courtauld's press release for the exhibition (tho' I haven't yet read the whole catalogue).
So congratulations to the Courtauld, and to curator Caroline Campbell, for staging it. (Congratulations also, by the way, to James Stunt, who is described on the wall as the exhibition's 'Lead Sponsor'. Readers who are up on their celebrity news will know that businessman James is married to Petra Ecclestone. Those of you who don't read Heat or the Daily Mail should marvel at a young man who not only likes Old Masters, but also supports academic research into them. How rare is that? He also has a fine collection of 17th Century British portraits, including works by Van Dyck, and lends many of them to museums, including the Huntington museum in California.)
I should really write a review of the exhibition, but Brian Sewell has beaten me to it, and I can't hope to improve on his piece in the Standard. He likes the exhibition (which of course means it's really excellent), but quibbles with the chronology of the works on display:
This is a bonne bouche of an exhibition, a delicious morsel (perhaps titbit is the better translation in this context) thrown in with the admission charge to the rest of the Courtauld Gallery. It is the sort of thing sometimes done so well there to fill a gap in our knowledge of art history, throwing new light on familiar paintings and revealing others unfamiliar. I lament only that the curator neither asked nor answered the question: “Who dared buy such sexually provocative paintings during Cromwell’s Courtless and puritanical Interregnum?” And the proposed chronology is suspect.
None of the works on display are securely dated, and the chronology is indeed hard to pin down. In part this is because Lely was so variable in his output. When he could be bothered to do justice to the full range of his talents, he was unmatched. But at other times one suspects he was an idle genius. But then, which geniuses aren't? His brilliant Nymphs by a Fountain (above), on loan from Dulwich, is so infinitely better than the works hanging either side of it that one begins to wonder if they're by the same hand. We must also note that one of the major works on display, The Concert, is quite clearly unfinished (a fact not always appreciated), which makes comparison with other early works tricky.
Regular readers will remember me banging on about Lely being a rare case of an artist getting worse as he got older. Largely, this is to do with the dread hand of the studio assistant creeping into his output. This is mainly confined to Lely's portraiture, and so doesn't wholly impact on the subject pictures on show at the Courtauld. It's a question which, coincidentally, Sewell touches on in his review:
There may well be thousands of these portraits, ranging from rare prime originals of often quite astonishing quality, to crass workshop replicas by assistants drilled to imitate Lely’s way with the fashionable face and repeat the stock patterns of the dress, landscapes, flowers, musical instruments and other essential embellishments of portraiture. On Lely’s death in 1680 his executors employed a dozen such slaves to complete for sale the many unfinished canvases stacked about his studio. It is these half-and-half and hardly-at-all Lelys that line the corridors of the indigent aristocracy whose houses are now administered by the National Trust, and no sight is more aesthetically and intellectually numbing, unless it is a corridor of Knellers.
Poor Sir Godfrey. Personally, I love a good corridor of portraits - even Knellers.
Update - a reader writes:
Brian Sewell's query about Lely's market for nuddy pics is interesting. There's an 'Art in the Interregnum' doctorate in there but the image of the regime booting the door in if you weren't living like something out of The Crucible is misleading. Once he was firmly in control I think His Highness the Lord Protector - with his fine tapestries and music evenings at Hampton Court - I think England was much the same. No theatres, true, but the late Protectorate was religiously tolerant, and by extension I suspect that there wasn't a moral embargo on what paintings you could own.
The Protectorate didn't fail because it was too strict - I think early modern Englishmen quite liked strongarm government, like Henry VIII - but because it couldn't establish a convincing 'narrative' to replace the old monarchy in people's minds, and without a strong successor it was natural - thank God - to want the old ways back.
And even if it was all starched collars and sermons, Lely's paintings would be a private expression of what people no longer saw in public. In Afghanistan under the Taliban, Kabul's most popular bootleg film was Titanic, and barbers would style men's hair a la Caprio, to be hidden under turbans.