The Wild, the Beautiful and the Damned

By foregrounding naked ambition, this exhibition allows some more nuanced shadings to fade away, finds Jordan Vibert

April 5, 2012

Left: Barbara Palmer (née Villiers), Duchess of Cleveland with her son, Charles Fitzroy, as Madonna and Child/Peter Lely/© National Portrait Gallery Right: Frances Teresa Stewart, Duchess of Richmond/Peter Lely/The Royal Collection © 2011

The Wild, the Beautiful and the Damned

Hampton Court Palace, Surrey Until 30 September

Beauty, Sex and Power: A Story of Debauchery and Decadent Art at the Late Stuart Court (1660-1714)

By Brett Dolman

Scala Publishers, 128pp, £16.95

ISBN 9781857597561

Published 5 April 2012

While “images…dangle just outside the reach” of Ultravox, in the lyrics of their song The Wild, the Beautiful and the Damned, they are brought well within our reach in this exhibition of the same name at Hampton Court Palace. Curator Brett Dolman assembles an extensive collection of late 17th- and early 18th-century portraits of the beauties of the day, many of whom graced the court of Charles II (some joining a long line of mistresses). In bringing together these feted beauties, this exhibition sets out to tell “a story about great art, but also about mistresses and adultery”, through which “visitors will understand what beauty meant and how it was used in the late 17th and early 18th centuries”.

In reality, however, the exhibition seems much more concerned with tales of sexual scandal than with telling us a story about art or beauty. This may reflect the love of titillating gossip and rumours that characterised the Restoration Court, trading in scandalous titbits about who was sleeping with whom. Yet the continual emphasis on this aspect of the world around the portraits robs us of some of the more nuanced readings that Dolman offers in the book that accompanies the exhibition.

The emphasis on sexual scandal seems set to appeal to the lurid taste that we have developed for celebrity gossip. We even find the kind of boorish pun that wouldn’t be out of place on page 3 of The Sun. Looking at a seemingly innocuous portrait painted by Peter Lely around 1662, we are informed that Frances Stuart, Duchess of Richmond, “depicted here as Diana, the chaste Roman goddess of the hunt, was chased around the court by Charles II”. The commentary goes on to tell us that “she - just about - resisted”, although we are later informed - in relation to a depiction of Britannia on a medal, modelled on Stuart - that, after her marriage, she “finally gave in to the attentions of the King (at least according to court gossip)”.

Although the interpretation of these representations seems to hinge on Stuart’s renowned virtue - the medal, with a profile of Charles II on the reverse, giving us “power, virtue and beauty combined” - it is the fact that Stuart was pursued by, resisted and perhaps eventually succumbed to the king that is made the focus of interest for us now. Dolman’s book offers a more thoughtful interpretation of the medal, drawn from a contemporary poem, as comparing Stuart protecting her virtue against the king with Britain’s virtue protecting her against foreign invasion. Yet we might also speculate how this intended meaning could end up rather complicated by a king who was assaulting the virtue of so many other women: if the medal draws a parallel between the defence of female virtue and the defence of the nation, might it also inadvertently suggest that the king’s licentious lifestyle could pose a threat to national security?

Within the exhibition, this kind of more careful analysis is overshadowed by discussions of Stuart’s beauty and sexual liaisons, and many of the portraits on display receive a similar treatment.

The exhibition is at its most interesting when it invites us to think more critically about the way these women are being represented, particularly in terms of power. Emblazoned across one panel is the question: “Did these portraits objectify women? Were they little more than titillation for their HUSBANDS and LOVERS? Or did they allow women to take charge of their own image, and direct their own SEXUAL DESTINY?” This important and useful question is taken up, primarily, through discussions of the historical and mythological guises that the women in these portraits took on.

Benedetto Gennari’s portrait of Lady Elizabeth Howard, Lady Felton as Cleopatra (c.1679-80) is a particularly striking example. Dolman suggests that she is “explicitly declaring her supremacy over her male lovers”, with reference to the “series of extra-marital affairs” she was known for at the time. Like Cleopatra, the portrait seems to be saying, Lady Elizabeth could bring down great men, and the political power they wielded, through her sexual allure. Elizabeth Hamilton and Eleanor Needham, on the other hand, transform themselves not into sexual temptresses but into the paragon of Christian virtue, St Catherine - a transformation that Dolman suggests may have “rung a little hollow” in the case of the latter.

Sometimes, the function of these pictorial transformations remains uncertain. A portrait of a court beauty dressed as a chaste virgin seems to beg the question of whether this was an intentional joke, which the sitter was in on, or an attempt to author a version of the sitter that worked against the gossip circulating about her. Both potential answers raise interesting questions about the function and uses of portraiture in this period, and whether we sometimes take it too seriously, or too much at face value.

Similar questions and issues resurface when we are introduced to Barbara Villiers, the long-time mistress of Charles II. She was painted, for example, as Minerva, St Agnes and even the Virgin Mary, all figures celebrated for their chastity. In the exhibition, Dolman presents Villiers as the author of these guises, suggesting that she was “a genius at self-promotion”. In Lely’s portrait of her as the Virgin Mary, along with her illegitimate son by Charles II, Charles Fitzroy, as the infant Christ (c.1663), Dolman argues that she has, in a “shockingly daring” move, “transformed herself from royal whore to a humble vessel fulfilling God’s will”. But while Dolman seems keen to suggest that Villiers was trying to “persuade people of her virtue” and of the legitimacy of her children, he also suggests that these portraits “parody the earnest virtuous symbolism of baroque portraiture”, implying that there may be an element of humour.

Adding to these complexities, we might also think about how this portrait could have developed other, unintentional resonances and meanings. In casting herself as the Virgin Mary and her son as the infant Christ, Villiers is clearly associating the king with God. This is touched on by Dolman who, in his book, points out that the portrait presents Villiers’ children as “the semi-divine children of a god-like King”. Surely, though, this must have had the potential to develop significant resonances - not intended by Villiers - in an era when the divine right of kings had been so triumphantly re-established, and where the king’s louche lifestyle was the subject of so much criticism. If the Virgin Mary is a whore, what might this portrait inadvertently end up saying about the semi-divine king and his right to rule?

Too often, the complexities of the portraits on display are eclipsed by an emphasis on sex and scandal, which leads to interpretations that feel facile and simplistic. Even Dolman’s accompanying book, which offers some more thoughtful and subtle interpretations, seems to be consciously marketing itself to a pop-culture generation, with its powder blue and shocking pink sans serif typeface. In entering into a negotiation with popular appeal, Dolman has let more complex readings of these portraits fade into the background.

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