Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Mary ''Moll'' Davis (fl.1663-1669) 1675c.

Mary Beale (1633-99)

Portrait of Mary ''Moll'' Davis (fl.1663-1669), Mary Beale
Oil on canvas
17th Century
18 x 15 inches 45.6 x 38 cm
This portrait of the King's mistress, the actress Moll Davis, is a repetition 'in little' by Mary Beale of a now-lost composition by Sir Peter Lely. A full-size variant is in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery (NPG 253).

Beale's oeuvre is best-known for its scale-of-life portraits of her friends and contemporaries and for the informal pictures she produced of her immediate family ''for study and improvement.'' Works such as the present painting represent a third and further aspect of her work, in which she produced copies of paintings by Sir Peter Lely with a mind both to an understanding of his technique as well as to the marketablity of the product.

The Portrait of Mary ''Moll'' Davis belongs to a particular category of these copies, which are distinguished by a reduction in scale -usually to the present dimensions of c.18 x 15 inches- and by the employment of a more meticulous technique and often costlier pigments than found in her larger canvasses. The present portrait, a ''pin-up'' of a current Royal mistress, is plainly of a commercial subject, and would have justified the comparatively high price of its execution -perhaps as much as 11. The painting might have been painted by Mary Beale from Lely's original before its collection by the client, or, according to a further theory concerning these small pictures, from the client's painting as a duplicate to hang in a townhouse whilst the large paintings went to the country.

As an actress Moll Davis enjoyed the same pedigree and path to the Royal favour as her contemporary and rival Nell Gwynn. Famously she impressed by her performance in D'Avenant's play The Rivals, and after singing the heart-rending song ''My Lodgings, it(sic) is on the cold, cold ground,'' -as contemporaries were pleased to observe- her lodgings were very soon in the royal bedchamber. Her activities are best and most assiduously noted by Samuel Pepys He states, 7 March 1666-7, that at the Duke's playhouse (Lincoln''s Inn Fields):

''little Miss Davis did dance a jigg after the end of the play, and there telling the next day''s play, so that it come in by force only to please the company to see her dance in boy's clothes; and the truth is there is no comparison between Nell's [Nell Gwynn's] dancing the other day at the King's house in boy's clothes and this, this being infinitely beyond the other.''

On 5 Aug. 1667 he saw ''Love Tricks, or the School of Compliments,'' by Shirley, and chronicles that ''Miss Davis dancing in a shepherd's clothes did please us mightily.'' On 11 Jan. 1667-8 he says: ''Knipp came and sat by us. She tells me how Miss Davis is for certain going away from the Duke's house, the king being in love with her, and a house is taken for her and furnishing; and she hath a ring given her already worth 600l.'' Mrs. Pepys says, 14 Jan. 1667-8, that she is ''the most impertinent slut in the world;'' and on the same date quoted the opinion of Mrs. Pierce, that ''she is a most homely jade as ever she saw, though she dances beyond anything in the world.'' Her final departure from the stage is chronicled 31 May 1668: ''I hear that Mrs. Davis is quite gone from the Duke of York''s house, and Gosnell comes in her room.'' She had danced ''her jigg'' at a performance at court a few nights previously, when the queen, it was supposed through displeasure, ''would not stay to see it.'' On 15 Feb. 1668-9 she was living in Suffolk Street, and was the possessor of ''a mighty pretty fine coach.

Sadly she enjoyed little further prominence as a royal mistress after this date, and the King is said to have tired of her avarice.

The present portrait depicts her with the unguent jar of St Mary Magdalen, placing her in the guise of the reformed sinner, as well as providing a witty conceit for the display of a very decolletage. It has not precisely been established whether this mode is employed by Lely and his contemporaries for the portrayal of mistresses alone, but references to the Magdalen occur also in a portrait of Hortense Mancini (the same composition as the present painting) and in a portrait of the lady known as Margaret Hughes (Tate Gallery).
Philip Mould Ltd, 18-19 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LU.Copyright Philip Mould Ltd.