Museum PR Announcements News and Information

Courtauld Gallery announces Peter Lely. A Lyrical Vision

Courtauld Gallery announces Peter Lely. A Lyrical Vision, an exhibition on view 11 October 2012 to 13 January 2013.

Peter Lely (1618-1680), Two heralds in ceremonial dress. Black and white chalk on blue paper, 518 x 363 mm© The Courtauld Gallery, London.

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.

Lely was born in Westphalia, the son of a Dutch officer, and received his artistic training in Haarlem. He started producing his narrative paintings in Holland. One example, depicting the Finding of Moses, is now known only through its inclusion in the background of two paintings by Vermeer (Woman Writing a Letter, with her Maid, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, and The Astronomer, Musée du Louvre, Paris). A Pair of Lovers in a Landscape (fig. 5, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Valenciennes) is a striking example of Lely’s early interest in Arcadian subjects. Observed by two satyrs, an enraptured shepherd gazes longingly at his companion. Lely left Holland around 1643 and tried to develop a market for this type of painting in England. The country was in the throes of civil war but Lely made the most of this inauspicious time. Few painters had stayed in London following the move of the Royal Court to Oxford, and Lely was free to develop his reputation in the city. By 1650 he had moved to Covent Garden Piazza, at that time London’s newest public square, where he remained for the rest of his life. His major patrons were the ‘Puritan Earls’, a group of cultivated noblemen including the Duke of Northumberland and the Earls of Pembroke and Salisbury, as well as the circle surrounding the Countess of Dysart at Ham House in Richmond. He also kept up his connections with the family of Charles I, and worked for the Protector, Oliver Cromwell, who famously asked him to portray him ‘warts and all’.

Lely had the opportunity to study paintings by Van Dyck and the great Venetian 16th-century artists Giorgione and Titian in the houses of his wealthy and cultivated aristocratic patrons. He began to buy these works himself, and by the end of his life had amassed one of England’s richest collections of 16th- and 17th-century Italian paintings and drawings (several examples from The Courtauld’s collection will be on display at the time of the exhibition). It was probably in response to the work of Van Dyck and the Venetian Renaissance that Lely made his most ambitious works of the 1640s and early 1650s. They include Nymphs by a Fountain (fig. 3, Dulwich Picture Gallery), The Concert (fig. 2, The Courtauld Gallery) and The Rape of Europa (fig. 4, Chatsworth).

The Courtauld Gallery
Somerset House Strand London WC2R 0RN
T: +44 (0)20 7848 2526
F: +44 (0)20 7848 2589
E: [email protected]

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *