Peter Lely (1618-80) ‘The Concert’ c1650 (detail) Oil on canvas 123.1 x 234 cm The Courtauld Gallery, London
Published: 8 November, 2012
THE current exhibition at The Courtauld Gallery is the first to examine the remarkable but forgotten group of large-scale narrative paintings produced in the 1640s and 1650s by Peter Lely (1618-80). Often depicting a sensuous pastoral world of shepherds, nymphs and musicians in idyllic landscapes, these ambitious pictures are all the more extraordinary for having been painted during the turmoil of the English Civil War and its aftermath.
Organised around The Courtauld’s enigmatic “The Concert” (detail above), the exhibition includes an important group of little-known paintings loaned from historic private collections.
Born in Westphalia, the son of a Dutch officer, Peter Lely was Charles II’s Principal Painter and the outstanding artistic figure of Restoration England. When he arrived in war-torn England in the early 1640s, Lely had high ambitions and devoted himself to paintings inspired by classical mythology, the Bible or contemporary literature.
His pastoral subjects resonated with a lyrical dream of England, an Arcadia far removed from the political upheaval of the age. But, much to his disappointment, his narrative paintings did not find favour with many English patrons, and he produced no more than 30. As the artist’s friend, the Royalist poet Richard Lovelace explained, all Lely’s English supporters wanted was “their own dull counterfeits” or portraits of their mistresses. His paintings of figures in idyllic landscapes remained relatively unknown and yet they are among the most beautiful and seductive made in 17th-century England.
Once thought to show the painter’s family, “The Concert” is more likely to be a personal and allegorical interpretation of Music in the service of Beauty, transporting viewers into an enchanted woodland paradise where musicians entertain beautiful women. The man who plays the viol da gamba in the centre is the painter himself; Lely is said to have liked to hear music playing as he worked.
By 1654 Lely was judged to be “the best artist in England” but from then on, aided by a flourishing studio, he produced almost exclusively portraits. He was knighted and granted an annual stipend by Charles II.
• Peter Lely: A Lyrical Vision runs to January 13, 2013, The Courtauld Gallery, Somerset House, Strand, WC2R 0RN, 020 7848 2526, www.courtauld.ac.uk
• Late: Thursday November 29, until 9pm Enjoy live music, performances, gallery talks, and workshops themed around the exhibition.
• Lunchtime Talks November 16, 30; and Talk on Paper November 15. Full details on website.