I have a bit of a crush on Peter Lely. In fact I’m a bit confused about it.
Here is the gentleman of whom I speak – his self portrait of 1660, from the National Portrait Gallery. Not exactly my type. However I have now made his acquaintance in person.
Well, not really. An actor or an historian (I don’t know which) is doing a impersonation of this man at Hampton Court Palace and doing a devilish cunning job. My head is quite turned, I can tell you.
Now this impersonation is in support of the new exhibition at Hampton Court of voluptuous portraiture of the Restoration period (from about 1660 to 1680) which I highly recommend: The Wild, the Beautiful and the Damned
It is brilliantly curated, with a bevy of sumptuous portraits hung in Queen Mary’s State Aparments, complete with opulent swags of silk and at one point a suggestively rumpled bed. The pictures are hung at eye level so you can engage with the personalities of the era and also luxuriate in the beautiful colours, textures and general aura of tasteful eroticism. Even the pictures that pertain to virtuous beauty reek of sex. It’s a wonderful show – highly theatrical.
As we were wallowing in all this, a lady dressed in a period perfect shot taffetta gown appeared and informed us that she would be undressing at 12 o’clock. Now, I knew that there are costumed interpreters at Hampton Court and, to tell you the truth, I usually give historical interpreters a very wide berth. However I had seen a snippet of one of those “behind the scenes” documentaries at Hampton Court and seen the costume department at work. It was obviously a very scholarly enterprise – and in fact just looking at this Restoration Beauty made it obvious that this was going to be very well done. So I put my silly prejudice aside and decided to go and see for myself.
What I didn’t realise was just how well done. I was entranced. It was a curious mixture of historical interpretation, improvised theatre and simple make believe. The lady turned out to be Lady Castlemaine herself and Peter Lely had brought some undress gowns from his studio so that he could paint another sexy portrait of her and keep the King’s interest. It was 1667 and neither of them would be strayed from that moment in time. Before Lady Castelmaine arrived I had a long conversation with Mr Lely who was inclined to charming gossip. He complained about the traffic in the Strand where the new maypole was and told me how many children Lady C. had had with the King. He had perfected a style of speech that was both contemporary, funny and slangy but had the flavour of the period to it, so that it was very easy to suspend my disbelief. When small children interrupted with rather annoying questions he was patient but politely authoritarian with them, and seemed entirely a man of the seventeenth century. He never stepped out of character for a moment. He was extremely interesting on the subject of his painting: how he uses badger’s hair brushes to make the women’s skin beautifully smooth and how he employs a drapery painter for the satin and silk. I wish now I had asked him how much he paid the drapery painter and his other assistants.
As to the disrobing of Lady Castelmaine – this was an excuse for a sort of flirtation between them while we women became attendants on Lady C. I got the job of unlacing the back of her bodice and asked her to help me find a husband for my daughter, though I found myself wondering if it was really doing my reputation any good to be in the camp of the King’s mistress, who might not be his mistress for much longer. This was how convincing it was – it was impossible not to get swept up into the story. We were very fortunate that there were not many of us there in the room, and for added atmosphere we could hear someone playing the organ in the Chapel Royal a few doors away, while beyond the great windows, the spectacular formal gardens were shrouded in light English drizzle.
I would dearly have loved to give them both a round of applause when we were done but they never broke character and it would have spoiled the rather magical atmosphere if they had. But whoever they are in the twentieth century, I offer them an appreciative flourish of my hand and thank them heartily.