One of the most famous painters of his age, Dutchman Sir Peter Lely – currently the subject of an exhibition at London’s Courtauld Gallery – rose to become the foremost portrait painter at the English Court during the latter half of the 17th century.
Born to Dutch parents on 14th September, 1618, in Westphalia (now part of Germany) where his father was serving as an infantry captain, Peter – originally named Pieter van der Faes – studied art as an apprentice in Haarlem in what is now The Netherlands. While there he is believed to have changed his name to Lely based on a heraldic lily which appeared on the gable of the house where his father was born in The Hague.
Lely appeared in London in the early 1640s and, while he initially devoted himself to the sort of narrative-style paintings inspired by classical mythology, the Bible and literature he had been working on in Haarlem but having found no great success there, soon turned his hand to portraiture.
The death of court portraitist Anthony van Dyck in 1641 had left a vacuum he stepped into the gap, soon becoming the most in-demand portrait painter at the Royal Court, his sitters including none other than King Charles I himself.
However, Lely, who was made a freeman of the Painter-Stainers Company in London in 1647, managed to straddle the political divide and after the beheading of King Charles I and the end of the English Civil War in 1651, was able to continue painting portraits of the most powerful people in the land including Oliver Cromwell – whom he painted “warts and all” as per the Lord Protector’s request – and his Cromwell’s brother Richard.
Already renowned as the best artist in the country, following the Restoration in 1660, Lely became Principal Painter of King Charles II, placed on an annual stipend as van Dyck had been before him during the reign of King Charles I.
Lely’s workshop was large and its output prolific, with his students and employees – who at one stage apparently included scientist and architect Robert Hooke – often completing his paintings after he sketched out some details, only painting the sitter’s face in any great detail.
Among his most famous works are a series of 10 portraits known as the Windsor Beauties (currently at Hampton Court Palace), a series of portraits of senior naval officers who served in the Second Anglo-Dutch War, known as the Flagmen of Lowestoft (most of the works at are the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich) and Susannah and the Elders (currently at Burghley House in Cambridgeshire) as well as some of the paintings in the current Courtauld exhibition including Nymphs by a Fountain (usually found at the Dulwich Picture Gallery) and Boy as a Shepherd (also the Dulwich Picture Gallery).
Lely was also known as an avid collector of art and is credited as being the first artist in England to do so in any serious manner – among his purchases were works which formerly formed part of King Charles I’s collection. At the time of his death, he is said to have owned more than 500 paintings, although more than half of these were works of his or his studio.
Sir Peter, who never married but had two children who survived him with a common-law wife Ursula, lived at a house in the north-east corner of Covent Garden from about 1650 until his death in 1680 (some sources have him knighted in this year, others in 1679) but also had a house at Kew and owned property outside of London including in Lincolnshire and The Hague.
He was apparently working at his easel in the studio of his Covent Garden house when he died on 30th November, 1680. He was buried at St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden. The monument to him, the work of Grinling Gibbons, was destroyed by fire in 1795.
Peter Lely: A Lyrical Vision – which focuses on some of his early non-portrait works – runs at The Courtauld Gallery until 13th January. For more on the exhibition, visit www.courtauld.ac.uk/gallery/exhibitions/2012/peter-lely/index.shtml. Running alongside the exhibition is a display of some of the drawings from Sir Peter’s own collection, Peter Lely: The Draughtsman and His Collection.