Early Lely exhibition at the Courtauld
July 17 2012
This exhibition is the first to examine the remarkable but forgotten group of large-scale narrative paintings produced in the 1640s and 1650s by Peter Lely (1618-80), England's leading painter after the death of Anthony van Dyck. Often depicting a sensuous pastoral world of shepherds, nymphs and musicians in idyllic landscapes, these ambitious pictures are all the more extraordinary for having been painted during the turmoil of the English Civil War and its aftermath. Organised around The Courtauld's enigmatic The Concert, the exhibition includes an important group of little-known paintings loaned from historic private collections.
Sir Peter Lely was Charles II's Principal Painter and the outstanding artistic figure of Restoration England. Since the 17th century, he has been celebrated for his flattering pictures of the great and the beautiful of Charles II's court. However, Lely never wished to be principally a portraitist. When he arrived in war-torn England in the early 1640s, hoping to step into the vacuum left by the death of Sir Anthony van Dyck, Lely had high ambitions and devoted himself to paintings inspired by classical mythology, the Bible or contemporary literature. His pastoral subjects resonated with a lyrical dream of England, an Arcadia far removed from the political upheaval of the age.
Much to Lely’s disappointment, his narrative paintings did not find favour with many English patrons, and he produced no more than thirty. As the artist’s friend, the Royalist poet Richard Lovelace explained, all Lely’s English supporters wanted was ‘their own dull counterfeits’ or portraits of their mistresses. Lely was obliged to turn to portraiture, and he employed a large and productive studio to keep up with the high demand for his work. His paintings of figures in idyllic landscapes remained relatively unknown and yet they are among the most beautiful and seductive made in 17th century England.
I have to say I think the spin put on Lely's early career here is incorrect. I don't doubt that, early in his career, Lely might have preferred painting subject pictures. Most artists do - even Gainsborough tired of 'face painting'. But I don't think you can say that it was 'much to [Lely's] disappointment' that he was forced to turn to portraits. There is relatively little evidence on Lely's early career, and I don't think it allows us to make such an interpretation. How any artist can have come to England in the 1640s and not have known that portraiture was what the English wanted is difficult to accept - especially one who (as is almost certainly the case with Lely) had come hoping to succeed in Van Dyck's place.
It is therefore an art historical non-sequitur to say, as the press release says, '...Lely never wished to be principally a portraitist. When he arrived in war-torn England in the early 1640s, hoping to step into the vacuum left by the death of Sir Anthony van [sic] Dyck...' While in England, Van Dyck was known to all the world as a portraitist. Of the 264 works attributed to Van Dyck's English period (1632-41) in the 2004 Van Dyck catalogue raisonne, only 3 are not portraits. So it can never have been the case that somehow word filtered back to Lely in Holland to the effect that in England, land of the Reformation and Civil War, lay a ready clientele clamouring for religious and allegorical pictures.
This is the second major institution to have got its 17th Century English art history wrong in as many weeks. What's going on?
Update - a reader writes:
Well, possibly the loss of specialist curators from major institutions may be a problem. The average curator in a small to medium institution has to cover a great deal of territory. For the non-specialist, such as me, 17th century art history is not an easy area to get into.