Anne Killigrew Discovery

Readers may remember an entry from 2016 about the remarkable Anne Killigrew, one of several members of a successful 17th century family that were, among other things, courtiers, dramatists, poets and artists during the reigns of both Charles I and Charles II.

At a time when autonomy and independence for women was still a rare and suspiciously-received aspiration, nevertheless several names have come down through the centuries as females who refused to yield to accepted conventions, and carved their own path as cultured, educated and talented women in their own right.

Anne Killigrew was one such pioneer, remembered as a poet, artist and, most importantly for us, a portraitist. Very few of her paintings are known to survive, and we looked at them in the earlier post, but a previously unknown work has come to light after it was identified last year in a minor Italian auction.

Anne Killigrew new

Labelled “Portrait of a Lady”, and thought likely to be the artist herself, this lovely picture was apparently painted in the 1680s, shortly before she died of smallpox in 1685.  It’s a fascinating composition, from the bare foot peeking out from under her dress, to the tilted urn full of fruit, and the tiny (tiny!) little dog almost hidden beneath her right knee.

I can’t help but contrast this with other British portraits of women from the mid to late 17th century, in particular, and most obviously, with those of the superstar court painter of the age, Sir Peter Lely. Most of us will have seen at least a few of Lely’s ‘Painted Ladies’, and will recognise the standard look of the women he captured on canvas: the loose, low-cut gowns that often left little to the imagination, the rich, shimmering silks, and the trademark sultry expressions. While beautifully produced, they can often appear formulaic and by rote, beautiful women painted to a specific and rather repetitive order. This is understandable, given that Lely was painting for the court of King Charles II, a man notorious for his pursuit of the fairer sex, and a man who would hardly have wanted warts-and-all likenesses in his royal apartments.

Our sitter here is quite different. She still wears beautiful drapery, and her expression challenges the viewer as much as Lely’s ladies’ do, but here, Anne (if it is indeed her) is no mistress or sultry courtier. She seems demure to the point of boredom, sitting in an unidentified, allegorical landscape, with a slim, boyish figure one imagines Lely would certainly have enhanced with extra curves in the most strategic of places.

Is this really how she looked? Was she aiming for a more ‘real’, less fantastical, idealised image of herself than a man such as Lely would have painted? Her scenery is fantasy,  yes, but was the likeness her true self, or was it how she wanted or believed herself to be? It’s a shame there are so few surviving paintings from the time, of women, by women, as we could learn much about the public and private attitudes surrounding the female image as interpreted by women themselves. Most of what remains is by men, giving unequal emphasis on the male viewpoint, as was ever the case.

Can readers suggest any other female portraitists from the late 1600s? I only know of Mary Beale and Joan Carlile. Let me know in the comments section below.

Lyon and Turnbull exhibition

Anne Killigrew: artist, poet, courtier

Amid the turbulence and instability of much of the seventeenth century, there was still room for education and culture to flourish, and women in particular were proving they could be just as skilled and talented as men, even if opportunity or gender bias meant that these talents were often left unrealised.

History has left us the names of several woman from this time who defied conventions and became poets, artists, writers, philosophers  or scientists. One such remarkable lady was Anne Killigrew, a member of a large and successful noble family that was close to the royal courts of Charles I and Charles II.

In the below portrait by Peter Lely, Anne is portrayed while painting,  in what is believed to be the only such-themed portrait by Sir Peter, as well as a rare depiction of a female artist at work. The picture and its significance are described in greater detail by the current holders Philip Mould & Co.

anne-killigrew
Portrait of a Lady, traditionally identified as Anne Killigrew (1660-85)

Although remembered more for her poetry, of which a collection was published after her death, she was also a skilled painter and portraitist. A self-portrait hangs at Berkeley Castle, and although I have been unable to find an image of it online, here is a mezzotint said to be based on the original:

anne-killigrew-self-portrait

Only a handful of her paintings are known to survive today, including this, of James II, now part of the Royal Collection.

james-ii-by-ak

Sadly, Anne died of smallpox at around 25 years old, yet another talent cut off too soon. If her poetry and portraits are examples of what she achieved in those short years, we can only imagine what  she might have produced had she had more time.  We do not know  where she gained her skills in painting, or who, if anyone, instructed her, but being so close to the royal court she would have had easy access to the great works in that collection, works by almost an entirety of celebrated male artists, and I think her own paintings stand up well against them. Not as the paintings of a woman, but as an artist the equal, in my view, of many of those men that came before.

 

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