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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 | 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.

Based on the exceptional quality of its brushwork and the careful modelling of the features, this portrait was probably one of the earliest of the 'Windsor Beauties' series to be completed. It depicts Elizabeth Hamilton, daughter of Sir George Hamilton and one of the greatest beauties of the Restoration court and was probably painted to celebrate her marriage to Philibert, Count of Gramont in late 1663. The couple returned to France in 1664. Holding a palm leaf in her left hand, with a wheel just visible in the shadows on her right, the sitter is portrayed as St Catherine - an iconographical reference particularly appropriate for a bride, given St Catherine's role as the spiritual 'bride of Christ'. The guise is also probably intended as a flattering homage to the Queen, Catherine of Braganza.