Nymphs Mix With Bohemians in Lely’s Sensual Art: Martin Gayford

"Nymphs by a Fountain" (c. 1654) by Peter Lely. This is among the most openly erotic pictures painted in England during the 17th century. Source: Courtauld Gallery/Dulwich Picture Gallery, London via Bloomberg

Nudity, poetry, music and pleasure are not necessarily words you’d associate with the puritan regime of Oliver Cromwell.

Yet an engaging show at London’s Courtauld Gallery -- “Peter Lely: A Lyrical Vision” (through Jan. 13, 2013) -- demonstrates that some of the most sensual, hedonistic, if not downright indecent images in British art were produced during the Civil War and the Commonwealth, the first and (to date) only English republic.

Their painter Peter Lely (1618-1680) was a Dutch artist from Haarlem who migrated to London in the early 1640s, just as the fighting between Charles I and Parliament was hotting up. His work is usually associated with the dissolute reign of Charles II, after the monarchy’s restoration in 1660.

In later life, however, Lely worked mainly, and prolifically, as a portraitist. While Cromwell is said to have asked Lely to paint him with “pimples, warts and everything as you see me,” most other sitters wanted to appear fashionably good-looking. So as the poet Dryden quipped, Lely “drew many graceful pictures, but few of them were like.”

At the same time, Lely produced bucolic idylls with naked nymphs, rustic music makers, and, in one case, a combination of the two. He lived in Covent Garden, in a square that would later become Soho: raffish, bohemian and the heart of the city’s artistic life. He mixed with writers such as the poet Richard Lovelace, who dedicated two poems to his friend “Mr. Pet. Lilly.”

Clunky Pictures

The earlier pictures in this exhibition are clunky, if charming: Lely improved with time. “A Boy as a Shepherd” (c.1658-60) and “Nymphs by a Fountain” (c. 1654) are masterpieces of British art. The latter, however, with its ostensibly underage models and a nude who points her bottom at the viewer, hints at the sordid reality of low life in republican London.

An earlier moment in 17th-century Britain is the focus of a fine exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. Heir to James I of England (and James VI of Scotland), Henry Stuart died in November 1612, just before his 19th birthday.

The sudden passing of this glamorous and popular royal -- probably from typhoid contracted while swimming in the filthy River Thames -- caused a shock not unlike the one produced four centuries later by the death of Princess Diana.

It also fueled speculation as to what might have been if Henry, Prince of Wales, had come to the throne as King Henry IX.

Sceptical Scholar

In a catalog essay, the historian Malcolm Smuts pours scholarly cold water on all the conjecture. He’s right: It’s impossible to say what this energetic teenager might have done as monarch over a decade later.

It’s still hard to resist the thought that he might not have made as much of a hash of things as his younger, less confident, and less gifted brother Charles. British and even world history might have taken a different turn: no civil war, no Westminster-style democracy.

Henry did have an impact on geopolitics: as a strong supporter of the English colony in Virginia. (That’s why the point where the Virginia Company’s fleet landed on the southern mouth of Chesapeake Bay in 1607 was named “Cape Henry”).

On display is an evocative array of portraits, armor, and items from Henry’s collection of art -- including, touchingly, a bronze statuette of a “Pacing Horse” by Pietro Tacca (c. 1600) which the Prince loved and held as he lay dying.

“Peter Lely: A Lyrical Vision” is at the Courtauld Gallery through Jan. 13, 2013. “The Lost Prince: The Life and Death of Henry Stuart” is at the National Portrait Gallery, also through Jan. 13, 2013.

(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Scott Reyburn on the art market, Ladka Bauerova on Prague dining and Jeffrey Burke on books.

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