7 January 2013

Peter Lely @ The Courtauld

Peter Lely: A Lyrical Vision runs at the Courtauld Gallery, London until Jan 12 2013.

The reputation in the UK of the Dutch artist Peter Lely rests largely on his portraits of the many beauties who caught the eye of Charles II. Some of these appeared last year at The Wild, the Beautiful and the Damned exhibition at Hampton Court.

The current display at the Courtauld chooses to examine Lely's pastoral and religious works. Previews frothed over risqué mythological scenes splashing acres of female flesh - scenes not often associated with the puritan Interregnum (when many of the works are meant to have been completed). So how did Lely get away with it?

The centrefold centrepiece of the display is the stunning Nymphs by a Fountain, on loan from Dulwich College. The five naked ladies were once deemed so provocative it was feared they could cause the Dulwich schoolboys moral injury, and the painting was forced to be held under lock and key. With no obvious Arcadian narrative, the painting invites the viewer to gawp at the artist's studio models as they assume their languid poses, though the effect of this huge, stunning piece is far more sensual than titillating.

Surrounding works are by similarly erotic and/or infused with levels of ambiguity. The Finding of Moses depicts its biblical theme while its subjects dispense with their clothes, while the focal point of The Concert is a musician (probably Lely himself) playing the viola da gamba. Others, possibly family members, gather around him offering varying degrees of attention in what appears to be some kind of pastoral allegory of art being in harmony with beauty or nature.

Details from Nymphs by a Fountain and The Concert on the exhibition leaflet and flyer.

By the second half of the room I felt that Lely was as much experimenting with light as much as theme during this period. Positioned partially hidden from different points of the room behind a wide column were a couple of paintings of individuals - Boy Playing a Jew's Harp and Man Playing a Pipe - dramatically illuminating their subjects by moonlight, the latter drawing on its semi-hidden position to appear out of the gloom like a chance encounter down a Haarlem backstreet.

A following room promised a collection of Lely's drawings by contemporaries, as well as preparatory sketches from his own hand. His preparatory sketch of Knights of the Garter strolling in ceremonial garb was the best and most animated (though a pity the head of the second figure was not completed) though the rest, comprising smaller sketches, were underwhelming.

The question of how many of the more erotic images came to painted under puritan rule - and who commissioned them - sadly remained unanswered. Lely was certainly in an privileged, though perhaps somewhat dangerous position, to have been in the employment of of both Royalist and Parliamentarian patrons (he stayed in London while the Stuart court decamped to Oxford and later even painted a portrait of Cromwell himself). Perhaps they were commissioned for private collections well out of sight of Cromwell's enforcers. Another suggestion might be that the dating of some of the works is open to wider conjecture than indicated.

Above: Curator Dr Caroline Campbell talks about the exhibition.

The exhibition is covered by the general entrance fee and I walked down to wander round the other floors. A few Lely portraits lie downstairs, though I was also surprised to see Portait of an Old and Young Man, by William Dobson, which I remembered Waldemar Januszczak being interested in around last year's 400th anniversary of the artist. He had helped to identify the two sitters as actually John Taylor and Sir John Denham, though I couldn't help noticing that Denham looks rather like Dobson himself (see my Dobson article).

With two of the great Stuart portraitists on display it was a shame there was nothing by the greatest of them all, Van Dyck, to compare them with. There are many in London, including at least 29 owned by Her Majesty, though only a portion are on display at any time.

Lely, Dobson and Van Dyck in a three-way face-off. How about that for an exhibition?

Peter Lely: A Lyrical Vision runs until Jan 12 2013.

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