Sir Peter Lely

Dutch artist Peter Lely is probably best known for his work in the service of Charles II during the Restoration, and in particular for his portraits of the King’s mistresses and other fashionable, high-society ladies.*

Frances Stewart Richhmond
Frances Stuart, Duchess of Richmond (1648-1702)  before 1662
Royal Collection Trust/©Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

His sitters weren’t only women, and in an English career that probably began in the early 1640s, and lasted until his death, he would paint a vast number of portraits of men and women, royalty and aristocracy, as well as a memorable collection of 13 naval officers,  known as the “Flagmen of Lowestoft”. One of my very favourite paintings by any artist is in this group, and belongs to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.  Although my great love in art is William Dobson, this gorgeous portrait by Lely has earned Sir Peter a place on my wall as well. 🙂

Admiral Sir John Harman
Flagmen of Lowestoft: Admiral Sir John Harman, d.1673.
©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Greenwich Hospital Collection

Little is known about Lely’s early years in England, although he is said to have arrived in London around 1641. Where he was during the wars is largely speculative, but a number of paintings from that time have been attributed to him, and after the death of King Charles he served under the Cromwells too. Yet it was in the 1660s that he really made his name, and memorably brought back much of the courtly elegance and beauty that had been lost following Van Dyck’s death, and through the grim and grey years of the civil wars and Commonwealth.


*An exhibition of Lely’s ‘Painted Ladies: Women at the Court of Charles II’ was held at the National Portrait Gallery in London in 2001-2002, and if you’re a fan it’s well worth getting hold of a copy of the catalogue (try Ebay or Abe Books).


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