|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. By 1654 Lely was judged to be ‘the best artist in England’ but from then on, aided by a flourishing studio, he produced almost exclusively portraits. He was knighted and granted an annual stipend by Charles II, as his predecessor Van Dyck had been honoured by Charles I.
Peter Lely: A Lyrical Vision looks beyond our conventional understanding of Lely to reveal a neglected chapter of this major painter’s career. It sheds new light on one of the most ambitious group of paintings to have been produced in England in the 17th century. The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue, edited by Caroline Campbell with further contributions by Diana Dethloff, Karen Hearn and David Taylor and published by Paul Holberton in association with The Courtauld Gallery. ISBN: 978 1 907372 40 7
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