Sewell on Hampton Court 'Mistresses' exhibition

April 20 2012

Image of Sewell on Hampton Court 'Mistresses' exhibition

Picture: Christie's

The Great Man doesn't like it. Which is perhaps to be expected, given the original way the exhibition is laid out (which I liked). But he makes a connoisseurial blooper in relation to the full-length of Nell Gwyn, above:

Always attributed to Peter Lely, it seems a wretched nude when compared with his convincingly erotic tumble of more substantial nymphs snoozing by a fountain in the Vale of Lethe (a masterpiece in Dulwich), painted perhaps a decade before Charles II came to the throne and perhaps evidence of a licentious tendency in English culture well before the Restoration. That these two paintings are by the same hand and same imagination is quite improbable; a prime original of the Gwynn portrait has yet to be discovered.

Sewell's mistake no.1 - comparing Lely's later works with his earlier pictures. Lely is a rare artist, in that he seems to get worse as he gets older. The picture Sewell refers to in Dulwich is perhaps his best early painting, from the early 1650s. The Nell Gwyn is a later work, from the 1670s.

What explains the difference? I don't know - but I suspect - that Lely's decline was partly due to idleness. Note, for example, his extensive reliance on the studio system. But perhaps most of all we must blame ourselves - for we English in the 17th Century just weren't that interested in painting itself, from an artistic point of view. We were the philistines of Europe. Portraits of ourselves we loved, but, generally, we weren't cultured enough to tell the difference between an exquisite piece of brushwork by a master hand, or a plodding piece of drapery by a studio assistant. (After all, these portraits were meant to hang in dark, candlelit dining rooms, so it didn't particularly matter.) This partly explains why there are so few really talented native English artists, and why those foreign artists that did come here tended to decline in their powers as they churned out portrait after portrait, and realised that they could get away with less and less effort. Compare for example Van Dyck's later English portraits with his earlier Antwerp works. Compare also Kneller's portraits; his earier English pictures are far better than the later ones, in which he relies increasingly on studio assistants. Happily, by the eighteenth Century we Brits had become a little more cultured (thanks in part to things like the Grand Tour), and we were at last able to contribute meaningfully to art history with the likes of Reynolds, Gainsborough, Hogarth and Lawrence.

And Sewell's mistake no.2: condition. As I was muttering earlier this week, not enough critics take into account condition issues when looking at paintings. The Lely in Dulwich Sewell takes as his reference point is in excellent condition. The Lely of Nell Gwyn is not, and has been both flattened during a relining, and abraded through over-cleaning - which partly explains why it failed to sell twice at auction recently. Personally, I'm in no doubt about Nell's attribution to Lely, and nor that it was the portrait Charles II had in his private rooms. 

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