New exhibition at Hampton Court

April 10 2012

Image of New exhibition at Hampton Court

Picture: BG (taken surreptitiously, so apologies for the poor quality)

Most visitors to Hampton Court will have heard about Henry VIII and his six wives. Few, however, will know about Charles II and his more numerous mistresses. This is a shame, for the stories of the Stuart court can be just as interesting as those of the Tudor world, and even come close to being as politically important. For had Charles II had spent less time chasing actresses, and concentrated instead on producing a legitimate heir, we might not have had the calamitous reign of James II, and thus the Glorious Revolution, the Bill of Rights, and the consitutional monarchy we live under today.  

So all praise to Historic Royal Palaces for shifting their focus onto the Stuarts at Hampton Court. Their new exhibition, The Wild, the Beautiful and the Damned, looks at the love life Britain's most priapic king, Charles II. I can highly recommend it. Brett Dolman, the curator, has put together a show which is both pleasingly entertaining and informative - rare these days - and has selected some of the finest examples of British portraiture from the seventeenth Century. These include: probably the finest miniature of the period, Samuel Cooper's unfinished portrait of the Dule of Monmouth; a selection of Lely's best 'Windsor Beauties', including Pepys' 'prettiest girl in the world', Frances Stuart; my favourite Van Dyck, Cupid and Pysche (though sadly hung too high, and poorly lit); and John Michael Wright's best painting, his portrait of Charles II (glimpsed above). 

I was also pleased to see that Lely's full-length of a naked Nell Gwynn has been displayed properly identified as her, and without the late Sir Oliver Millar's curious suggestion that the sitter is Barbara Villiers. The Lely (above) is hung next to a contemporary copy of the same subject, which, while of inferior quality, confirms to me in its more detailed background that Lely's original, which is strangely muted in that area, has suffered a degree of loss over the years.

A number of pictures have been cleaned for the exhibition, including Lely's fine portrait of Lady Byron, which has languished in the Royal Collection's store for many years. And in a way, what this exhibition really revealed to me was that the previously rather empty and sparsely hung Wren rooms at Hampton Court come to life when full of pictures. Kneller's 'Hampton Court Beauties', for example, are usually crammed into a small and dimly lit ground floor room used by William III at Hampton Court, where it is impossible to stand back from them, or even see some them in the gloaming. This may well be a historically relevant place to hang the pictures, but as Kneller once said when he found someone looking too closely at his portraits; 'my pictures are not made for smelling of'. They need space to be appreciated. So hopefully, the exhibition will usher in a rehang of the later Stuart rooms at Hampton Court. But in the meantime, do go along to this excellent new show - and let me know what you think.

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