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Sir Peter Lely (1618-80)

Elizabeth Hamilton, Countess of Gramont (1641-1708) c.1663

Oil on canvas | 124.5 x 101.2 cm (support, canvas/panel/str external) | RCIN 404960

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  • This picture forms one of the 'Windsor Beauties' series, a set of eleven portraits of celebrated women at the Restoration court painted by Sir Peter Lely. The series was apparently commissioned or at least assembled by Anne Hyde, Duchess of York, probably around 1662-5. Pepys recorded on 21 August 1668 that he 'did first see the Duke of York's room of pictures of some Maids of Honour, done by Lilly: good, but not like.' By describing the pictures as 'not like' Pepys is alluding to the often noted opinion that Lely flattered his subjects, and gave each portrait a similar languorous and 'sleepy eyed' air, said to have been influenced by the features of the noted court beauty Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland (RCIN 404957) who was painted many times by Lely. Contrary to Pepys's assertion, only one of the sitters, Frances Teresa Stuart (RCIN 404514) actually held the position of Maid of Honour in the Royal Household. Some of the others were noted courtesans, while others were respected members of the nobility.

    In 1674, after the death of Anne Hyde, the pictures were hanging as a group in the White Room at Whitehall which was reported as being 'Hunge wth white sarsanett [sarcenet - a soft fabric, usually of silk], and over it blew Mohair with silk fringe'. Eleven pictures are mentioned in this inventory, although ten today are identified today as belonging to the group. The series was taken from Whitehall to Windsor, presumably by James II and hung in the Princess's Dressing Room. In the reign of Queen Anne they were hung in the Queen's Waiting Room and later in the Queen's State Bedchamber. They were at Hampton Court by June 1835. All appear to be wholly by Lely's own hand except Anne Digby, Countess of Sunderland (RCIN 404515) which is probably a studio copy.
     

    Elizabeth Hamilton (1641–1708), 'La Belle Hamilton', daughter of Sir George Hamilton (c.1607–79), was one of the greatest beauties of the Restoration court. She was born in Ireland, brought up in France and arrived in England in 1660. This portrait was probably painted to celebrate her marriage in late 1663 to Philibert, Count of Gramont (1621–1707). The countess is depicted as St Catherine, with the wheel to her right and a martyr's palm in her left hand, a reference that was particularly appropriate for a bride because St Catherine was the spiritual 'bride of Christ'. The guise was also probably intended as a compliment to the queen, Catherine of Braganza.

    The exceptional quality of the brushwork indicates that it is one of the earliest (and thus most carefully executed) of the Windsor Beauties. Lely has captured the attractiveness of the sitter as described by her brother, Anthony, in his Memoirs: 'she had a lovely figure, the fairest bosom and arms in the whole world […] her complexion was of a certain freshness […] a face which was all sweetness'. The brilliantly painted draperies, particularly the rich coral silk swathed over her body and pinned at her shoulder, provide an exquisite contrast with her pale, smooth skin. Of this portrait, Anthony Hamilton wrote: 'Every picture seemed a masterpiece; but his portrait of Miss Hamilton was the most successful of all. Lely admitted that he had enjoyed painting it; the Duke of York enjoyed looking at it, and once again began ogling the original'. The Count and Countess of Gramont returned to live in France in 1664, although they made frequent visits to the court in England. Elizabeth's position at the French court was enhanced in 1688 by the arrival in exile of James II and Mary of Modena, and she played a key role in maintaining cordial relations between the Bourbon and exiled Jacobite courts.

    Text adapted from Charles II: Art and Power, London, 2017.

    Provenance

    Probably commissioned by Anne Hyde, Duchess of York.

  • Medium and techniques

    Oil on canvas

    Measurements

    124.5 x 101.2 cm (support, canvas/panel/str external)

    143.1 x 120.4 x 8.3 cm (frame, external)