For the beautiful young women at the court of “the merry monarch” Charles II, trying to live on their wits and their looks was a dangerous gamble.
For the beautiful young women at the court of “the merry monarch” Charles II, trying to live on their wits and their looks was a dangerous gamble. At least two of the subjects of a new exhibition at Hampton Court Palace died so young, and so unexpectedly, that contemporary gossip insisted they were poisoned by jealous husbands.
The exhibition, the first at Hampton Court on the Stuart period after a decade spent on the Tudors and Henry VIII, is in the Queen’s state apartments, which were created in the late 17th century by Sir Christopher Wren for Mary II.
“Beauty was a very thin line,” the show’s curator, Brett Dolman, said. “On one side, beauty is taken as a symbol of virtue and perfection, beauty could allow you to rise far beyond your original station in life. On the other, beauty is viewed with suspicion as a snare and one wrong step and your reputation is destroyed forever.”
The portrait of Elizabeth Butler, by the 17th-century artist Peter Lely, usually hangs at Chevening in Kent, the mansion once owned by her husband, Philip Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield, and now shared by the foreign secretary, William Hague, and the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg. Butler attracted the roving eye of the king’s brother, James, was sent away from court by Stanhope – despite his own rackety reputation – and was dead within the year.
Margaret Brooke, one of two beautiful sisters, was also targeted by James but married a much older poet, John Denham: she too was sent from court and was dead within a year, aged 20.
On the other hand Frances Stuart, painted by Lely as Diana the hunter, and dubbed “the prettiest girl in the world” by the diarist Samuel Pepys, just about kept clear of the king’s grasping hands, married well and became the model for Britannia on the coinage.
The most famously avaricious for both money and power, and the mistress who retained power over the king for longest, was Barbara Villiers: the exhibition includes the outrageous portrait of her as the Virgin Mary, dandling her son by the king, both perfectly recognisable to her contemporaries.
Nell Gwynn will sprawl naked at the heart of the exhibition, her past as an actor and Covent Garden orange seller forgotten, her two sons by the king on their way to becoming nobility – even if legend says she dangled one out of a window and threatened to let go to win him a title. The portrait the king is said to have displayed at the head of his bed, concealed behind a blameless landscape, is coming on loan from a private collector – it was auctioned at Christie’s in 2007 for £1.7m.
She was loved as much for her wit as her beauty: when a crowd stopped her carriage, believing it held Louise de Keroualle, suspected of being a Catholic French spy, Gwynn retorted: “Pray good people be civil, I am the Protestant whore.” She is also said to have handicapped a rival for the king, Moll Davis, by lacing her food with a purgative.
Many of the portraits come from two famous series in the royal collection, The Windsor Beauties and the Hampton Court Beauties – but Dolman says visitors have in the past walked past them like wallpaper.
“Part of the problem is their baroque style which, apart from the period when it was the height of fashion, has tended to be viewed with suspicion: not English enough, too racy, too French.”
Many of the beauties have spent years in store, including the wildest – by repute – of them all, Hortense Mancini, niece of the French Cardinal Jules Mazarin. The painting shows her sister reading her palm and prophesying she will fall in love with a king: by the time she reached the court in 1676, on the run from an older husband so mad he forbade his female servants to milk cows lest it give them sexual kicks, gossip said she had slept with many men, at least one priest, several nuns and the king’s illegitimate daughter – with whom she fought a public fencing match with both women in nightgowns.
“I don’t know how many of the stories can possibly be true,” Dolman said. “I can’t see how she would have had the time.”
The Wild, the Beautiful and the Damned, Hampton Court Palace, East Molesey, Surrey from 5 April to 30 September www.hrp.org.uk/HamptonCourtPalace/
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