CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Sir Peter Lely (1618-1680): artist-collector of the Baroque

Exhibition: 24 February - 31 May 2009

Information from the museum, 24 March 2009

Sir Peter Lely was one of the most distinguished portraitists to work in Britain in the second half of the seventeenth century. Born in Westphalia in Germany, he was trained in Haarlem and then settled in London around 1643, filling the vacancy that the death of Sir Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641) created. Lely was appointed Principal Painter to Charles II in 1660 and became renowned for his languorous court portraits, especially the series of the so-called Windsor Beauties (1662-68, Royal Collection, Hampton Court). He employed numerous assistants and had a significant impact on subsequent generations of British portraitists.

As well as enjoying professional success, Lely became one of the most remarkable collectors of the Restoration period – and it is this aspect of his activities that can be studied in the current exhibition. He is recorded as having acquired nearly 10,000 drawings and prints and his enthusiasm for collecting such works by earlier and contemporary artists was so overwhelming that it bankrupted him. It is possible to determine which works belonged to Lely because after his death they were stamped by his executor, Sir Roger North, with the monogram ‘PL’, prior to being sold at auctions in 1688 and 1694. About 50 such drawings survive in the Christ Church collection and 32 of them are displayed here; the Lely stamp can be clearly seen on most of them at the lower right. The process of stamping was not just a means of recording provenance, but may have been seen as a way of signifying quality, because a collector would know he was then acquiring a work valued by an earlier renowned connoisseur (some of the drawings on display show other collectors’ stamps, e.g. the star of the famous collector Nicholas Lanier).

Lely was by no means the first artist to collect works of art, however, he was the first artist working in Britain to build such an extensive collection. Its quality is effectively illustrated in the works at Christ Church, which include examples by renowned artists such as Parmigianino (JBS 1084-86), Veronese (JBS 793) and Taddeo Zuccaro (JBS 534). In many ways this emphasis on northern Italian sixteenth-century drawing exemplifies the strengths of his collection, although in total it represented a broader taste.

What motivated Lely to collect, apart from an obvious passion for graphic art, is not specifically recorded. He used some of the works in his collection – especially those by Correggio and Parmigianino – as a source for certain sculptural motifs in his paintings, and particularly for the elegant, fulsome draperies which often feature in his portraits. Even if, however, it is not possible to develop a further understanding of his motivations, the evidence we have for the range and quality of the Lely collection provides invaluable insights into the sophistication and international nature of the art market which had developed in Britain by the late seventeenth century.