Lady With An Ermine

No,  not Da Vinci’s lady and her pet!  This is another eBay find, offered up by the same people who presented Lady Middleton for sale back in June. (See blog entry “Lady Who?”).


This  new canvas is entitled “Portrait of a lady with an ermine cape”, and is attributed, thanks to an inscribed plaque and an old label, to Lady Middeton’s claimed painter, Sir Peter Lely. For a supposed  work of the great Sir Peter, our lady in ringlets is going surprisingly cheap, with a ‘buy it now’ price of  £4,500. There are no hints as to the sitter’s identity, sadly.

I’m not convinced by the attribution, although it’s a very sweet painting, but I’d like to know its provenance, and why persons unknown were so certain of the artist. What do readers think of this one?

Click to view on Ebay

Update 5th October: I’ve had a dig around the internet to try to find out more, and has listed it from a past auction as ‘follower of Sir Peter Lely’, which I think is more accurate (and honest) than the sale listing on eBay.

Lady Who?

If you have $35,000 down the back of your sofa (and $400 for postage), you could be the proud owner of this rather nice portrait of Lady Middleton by Peter Lely.

Lady Middleton

So far, so simple, right? Well, yes and no. The above painting is listed on Ebay, which always makes me sceptical of both the seller and the item. It’s not that I automatically mistrust someone trying to sell an old master (if it is one) on Ebay, but for me it raises a number of questions about both.

First, I am not in anyway suggesting the seller here is anything but an honest and professional member of the art trade. From the given description of their business and practice they seem genuine, and without investigating them further I have no immediate reason to be suspicious of them. However, if you believed you had a genuine work of art by Peter Lely, one of the greatest painters in European art history, why would you choose to flog it on Ebay, a generalist online auction site from which you can also buy socks for 25p, or a multipack of Ribena cartons for £1? I don’t know the going rate for a Lely at auction these days, but I’m pretty sure $35,000 would be a bargain price. Why would you not go to one of the big auction houses and try and get a few hundred grand for it?

The seller posts a disclaimer that they are wholesale art dealers, and are not in the practice of authentication. Fair enough, they admit they just sell the items, and don’t make any claims as to the correct identification of the works they sell, arguing caveat emptor to avoid any accusations of misselling. Yet they have listed the item as ‘by Peter Lely’, rather than ‘attributed to’ or ‘we’ve been told it’s by Lely but you’ll have to google it yourself’,  which seems like a pretty straightforward claim of authenticity to me. Cannily covering all bases, perhap? They also give no details of the sitter, beyond that she was a 17th century woman name Lady Middleton. Even if they do not authenticate works, if they are hoping for a 6-figure sale, one would surely expect some basic information to be sought and included before listing?

They close with “Original origin is unknown. Selling as is without certificate of authenticity.” Not being in the art world, I’m not sure what a certificate of authenticity entails (perhaps someone in the know can explain?) but it makes me wonder even more why a work that has the possibility of being proven a genuine work by a popular and sought-after artist is on a buy now’ or ‘make offer’ online auction, where a serious buyer cannot inspect the work in person, as they can at an auction house, before offering large sums of money. I found what appears to be the same picture listed on Artnet as a past auction, and the only new information is that it was ‘collab. w/studio’, suggesting, I presume, that here it was not thought to be 100% by Lely himself.

Whatever the origin, provenance and authenticity of this portrait, I’m not sure Ebay would be my first thought when looking for a quality old master to purchase, yet clearly other people are happy to do so. What do readers think?

Click to view on Ebay



Unfinished Works

There are many surviving examples of unfinished 17th century portraits. Some were small-scale studies for larger compositions, others were begun but left in limbo waiting for either the sitter or painter to find the time (or the money) to complete them, while others remained on the easel when the painter died. These works are sometimes even more interesting than the completed article, as they give insight into the painter’s composition process and how he or she approached their task.

VD Magistrate

Van Dyck’s 1634/1635 work entitled “Magistrates of Brussels”, which depicted several magistrates in council, was destroyed during French bombardment of Brussels in 1695, but several head sketches survive, including the above which is in a private collection. (I know, it’s not strictly English portraiture, but I think Sir Anthony can have a free pass on this one!)

VD Princesses.jpg
Anthony van Dyck,  Princess Elizabeth and Princess Anne, 1637,
©Scottish National Portrait Gallery

In this beautiful double portrait,Van Dyck depicts two daughters of King Charles I and Henrietta Maria. This was a study for part of his 1637 work “The Five Eldest Children of King Charles I” (below), now in the Royal Collection.

NPG 267; Five Children of King Charles I after Sir Anthony van Dyck

WD Rupert
Prince Rupert by William Dobson (private collection), begun in Oxford during the Royalist occupation of the 1640s, but remaining unfinished when the Prince left the city in early 1646.

Cooper Cromwell
Miniature of Oliver Cromwell, C.1650, by Samuel Cooper, private collection

Soest, Gerard, c.1600-1681; 20th Earl of Oxford
20th Earl of Oxford (called’Aubrey de Vere, 1626-1703)
c.1656/1657, ©Dulwich Picture Gallery

Lely poss Anne Hyde
Portrait of a Lady, probably Anne Hyde, Duchess of York (1637-1671)
Studio of Sir Peter Lely

Kings and Queens

Royal portraiture was a tricky thing. In a world where an official painting (or an engraving of it) was, for many people, the only opportunity they had to lay eyes on their monarch, the portrayal of royalty had to show strength, power and confidence, not just to the people they ruled, but to relatives, friends and, most importantly, adversaries and enemies. Think of Henry VIII’s supremely arrogant, hands-on-hips ‘don’t mess with me’ poses. Even today that image gives us a sense of the character and reputation of the man, and adds colour and shape to what we know of him on paper.

The Stuarts, too, commissioned numerous portraits, although some were more reluctant than others. James I was said to be uncomfortable with the process, and this comes across in awkward and stiff poses. While he was merely unenthused by the whole idea, there is little suggestion that he was uncertain of his role as king, only that he wouldn’t have been the kind of ruler who liked pasting selfies all over Instagram. Compare this with the images we have of Charles I, trying his best to appear strong and capable, when he frequently appears uncertain and troubled, particularly during the conflict in the 1640s when chaos reigned rather than him. In such times we would expect his portraits to show a man absolutely confident and in control, a king who needed his people to get behind him, yet Dobson’s portraits give us a man who is far from confident or assured of victory, despite the haughty expression and rich clothes of state.

So here’s a look at how the Stuart kings and consorts showed us their game-faces, some with more success than others!

James I van Somer I
King James I of England, before 1621, by Paul van Somer
©Museo del Prado, Madrid

Anne of Denmark2
Queen Anne of Denmark, 1614, attrib. Marcus Gheerearts the Younger
©The Royal Collection

Charles I Hamptn Ct Dobson
King Charles I, c.1640-1646, by William Dobson
©The Royal Collection

Van Dyck Henrietta Maria em MN575 l
Queen Henrietta Maria, c. late 1630s, by Anthony Van Dyck
©Philip Mould Ltd

Charles II NPG
King Charles II, c. 1660-1665, by John Michael Wright
©National Portrait Gallery, London

Queen Catherine of Braganza, wife of King Charles II, 1665, by Sir Peter Lely
©Philip Mould Ltd

James II Kneller
King James II, 1683, by Sir Godfrey Kneller
©Government Art Collection

Anne Hyde, Duchess of York  (first wife of the future King James II), c.1662, by Sir Peter Lely

Mary of Modena, second wife and Queen Consort of King James II, 1680, by Simon Petersz Verelst

Women of the 17th Century

It’s interesting to watch the change in fashions and attitudes to women, through the paintings that represented them during the 1600s. It’s easy to forget that from the formal, stiff poses, and the ruffs and hoop skirts that carried over from the Tudor years into post-Elizabethan England, through the plain, austere attire of the Commonwealth and its more zealous puritannical adherents,  to the flirty, half-naked, often scandalous women in Lely’s portraits after the Restoration, was only 60 or 70 years. Was it the nature of the times that brought about this alteration in fashion in such a dramatic manner, or would it have happened anyway? The 1600s in England were a turbulent rollercoaster between freedom and oppression (both literally and in a religious sense), the almost total breakdown of society into civil war, then a swing from royalty to republic and back to royalty again. It’s not surprising attitudes to dress and, on a wider scale, the position of women in English life, was likewise unsettled.

Perhaps it is not so uncommon, though. Think of the events of the 20th century, that took Britain from the pre-war years with formal, conservative clothes (hats, gloves, respectability, etc), to austerity and ‘make do and mend’ in the 1940s,  to a post-WWII new world when freedom of expression came into its own, the 1960s being the obvious example.

With that in mind, here’s a look at how our view of women changed during the 1600s.

Elizabeth of Bohemia
Princess Elizabeth Stuart, c.1606, by Robert Peake the Elder, ©Metropolitan Museum of Art
Anne of Denmark2
Anne of Denmark, 1614, by Marcus Gheerhaerts the Younger, ©The Royal Collection
Portrait of Mary Hill, Lady Killigrew 1638 by Sir Anthony Van Dyck 1599-1641
Mary Hill, Lady Killigrew, 1638, Sir Anthony Van Dyck
©Tate Britain
Catherine Pye
Lady Catherine Lucas, Lady Pye, “Dame Catherine Pye”, 1639, Henry Giles
©National Trust, Bradenham Manor
Countess of Loudon
Portrait of a lady, said to be the Countess of Loudon, attrib. John Hayls, date not given
©Collection of The Great Steward of Scotland’s Dumfries House Trust
Poss Lady Salkeld
An unknown woman, possibly Lady Salkeld, date unknown, William Dobson
©C.Cotterell-Dormer. Esq (private collection)
Elizabeth Cromwell
Elizabeth Cromwell (Oliver’s mother), c.1640-1655, Robert Walker
©Museum of London
Nell Gwynn
Nell Gwynn, c.1675, by Sir Peter Lely

School, Circle or Studio?

A reader has asked for an explanation of the many different forms of attribution used in art, such as ‘circle of’, ‘manner of’, ‘after’, etc. It’s no easy task to definitively link a painting with a particular painter (unless it’s one of the great Masters who have institutes and world experts on hand to do it), so such terms give galleries and auction houses space to offer a qualified guess, or cover up the fact that they actually don’t have a clue, and don’t want to stick their necks out and get it wrong.

I’ve taken the following terminology from one auction house’s website,* and although they caution that every house or gallery has their own individual cataloguing terms and house style, those below are quite standard terms I’ve seen used across the board.

“Attributed to” –  In our opinion, probably a work by the artist

For example… (although this one is definitely NOT by Dobson!):

Rachel Wriothesley

Rachel Wriothesley (1636-1723) by William Dobson (attributed to)
©Carmarthenshire Museums Service Collection , no date given


Circle of”
In our opinion, a work by an unidentified artist working in the artist’s style and during the period of the artist’s life.

Anne Cecil
Lady Anne Cecil, c. 1635, sold at auction as circle of Van Dyck


“After”In our opinion, a copy by an unidentified artist of a named work by the artist.

 After Walker
Portrait of Oliver Cromwell, After Robert Walker


“Follower of”In our opinion a work by an unidentified artist, working in the artist’s style, contemporary or near contemporary.

Follower of Lely
Portrait of a gentleman, bust-length, in a black robe and a white lawn collar, feigned oval, Follower of Peter Lely


“School of” – In our opinion, a work executed at that time and in the style associated with that artist.

“Manner of” – In our opinion, a work by an unidentified artist working in the artist’s style but at a later date, although not of recent execution.

“Studio of” – In our opinion, a work likely to come from the studio of the artist or closely associated with the artist.

So as you can see, it’s not always a straight-forward matter when trying to identify a painter! Some pictures are of far better quality than others, requiring a second-glance and a closer inspection to be sure it is NOT by the original artist. In other cases, however, it is patently obvious that the picture concerned is not by the artist claimed, and that the attribution has probably been made by someone who has little knowledge of the period or its painters. This brings  us back to the argument on connoisseurship and the need for people who study and become intimately familar with an artist’s signature brushstrokes and mannerisms. Surely we can’t truly know our great painters without them?



To Clean Or Not To Clean?

A reader has sent me a fascinating update regarding George Lisle, and before I move on from the Lisle and Lucas mysteries, I wanted to share it here.

We know that the George Lisle portrait was sold in 1990, looking shiny and spotless, and that it was auctioned with an attribution to “circle of John Michael Wright”.  Yet we now know it had also been up for sale a year earlier, selling at a different auction house, this time attributed to “studio of Sir Peter Lely”.

In that year it had also had a thorough cleaning.

Lisle 2 before and after clean

It’s not often we see a painting before and after cleaning, so this is a great example of how the judgement of whether to clean at all, and how much, can be a tricky decision. I personally prefer the dirtier version, perhaps because it looks like it really has been on a wall or in an attic for a few centuries, collecting the dust and dirt that betrays its true age and the passing of all that time. After cleaning, in my opinion it’s a little too scrubbed, too polished, and has lost some of its character in the process. Curious too, to note how attribution to a particular artist is also an inexact science. This portrait has gone from Lely’s circle to Wright’s in the space of a year, and still nobody seems to have a clue who painted it!


Many thanks to Tyger’s Head Books for the images and new information.


What I love about 17th century portraiture is that you can watch its artistic development changing as the decades pass,  from the end of the Tudors to the beginning of the Stuarts, through the Civil War and on into the Restoration.  Beginning with the likes of William Peake and John de Critz in the opening years of the century, to Daniel Mytens, Peter Paul Rubens, Antony Van Dyck, William Dobson, Godfrey Kneller and Peter Lely, each decade seems to have its own illustrator to tell its story.

You can also chart the events of the period through its art, from the death of Elizabeth and the end of the Tudor dynasty in 1603, through King James’s court to the unsettled and nervous reign of Charles I, into the austere war years, and on to the glamour of Charles II’s restored monarchy. For me, no other period in British history can be so well-defined by those that painted it.

There were many memorable artists  working in England during the 17th century, but my favourite of them all is William Dobson.

William Dobson
“Portrait of the Artist”, possibly c.1645/6, ©National Portrait Gallery, London

Dobson was an Englishman, born in St Albans in 1611 and trained in London with what seems to have been an ordinary painter’s apprenticeship. What is remarkable about him is that he wasn’t famous or well-travelled like Sir Antony Van Dyck or Rubens, both of whom worked for the most prestigious and influential people across Europe, nor did he have a distinguished education or career to recommend him, yet somehow, by the end of 1642, he had left London and was living in Oxford as the court painter to King Charles I. We have no idea how he got the job, but the works he produced of the Royalist supporters during four years of civil war became the eye-witness images of the conflict that we recognise today.  The Parliamentarian side had their own painter, Robert Walker, whose work we know by his many portraits of Oliver Cromwell, and other artists were also present during the period, but no name is as closely associated with the tragedy of the English Civil War as William Dobson. His ability to portray ‘real’ people, with their flaws and vulnerabilities,  is what makes his work so poignant and moving. Take this painting of the troubled King Charles, for example. I’ve not seen any other royal picture, of any king or queen, painted more honestly than this.

Charles I
“Charles I” c. 1642-1646, © Mould Ltd
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