Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait miniature of Nell (Eleanor) Gwyn (1650-1687), wearing blue and white loose chemise, her breasts exposed 

Gervase Spencer (fl.1740-63)

Portrait miniature of Nell (Eleanor) Gwyn (1650-1687), wearing blue and white loose chemise, her breasts exposed, Gervase Spencer
Watercolour on ivory
18th Century
Oval, 1 7/8 in (7.3 cm) high
Private noble collection; by descent
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Gervase Spencer was a gentleman’s servant before discovering a talent for art. Although self-taught, his work caught the eye of George Vertue, who described him in 1740 as ‘a young man […] who […] a few years ago was in the capacity of a footman to Dr. W[…] - and now professes liming with some success […] in a curious neat manner and masterly’. His work was commissioned by the royal family, and a portrait miniature of George III is in the Royal Collection at Windsor.

‘Pretty witty Nell’ was, according to Samuel Pepys, ‘brought up in a bawdy-house to fill strong water to the guests.’ That she became Charles II’s most famous mistresses is testament to her achievement in overturning convention, taste and class rigidity in a court system famed for its inflexibility. Though she admittedly became the priapic King’s mistress at a time when ‘whoreing was in fashion’ – as she herself reportedly put it – Gwyn helped establish the acceptability of mistresses amongst royalty (a tradition which some might say has never entirely been discarded). Known as ‘The Protestant Whore’, Nell bore the King two children, the Duke of St Albans and Lord Beauclerk, and died in her mid-thirties, probably at the age of 36.

The present work derives from the now lost portrait of Nell Gwyn by Samuel Cooper, now known only from an engraving by George Valck who arrived in England c. 1673. Although adopting the same head-type, the present miniature displays a more imaginative sense of invention seen in the exposed breasts and the slightly different hair design, reflective of the eighteenth century attitude towards women. Exposed breasts have long been a symbol of mistress status but whereas artists such as Sir Peter Lely were more restrained, most often simply showing one exposed nipple, Spencer has further eroticised the image by showing Gwyn naked to the waist. It is also pertinent to note the way her hair is worn ‘down’ – a voyeuristic symbol of sexual readiness and vulnerability associated within the privacy of a bedchamber.

We can assume therefore that Spencer was attempting to not simply imitate, but re-create the well-known portrait of Nell, appealing to the increasing appetite for sexually charged imagery in mid-eighteenth century England. The bawdy morals of late Stuart/early Georgian England are best reflected in the engravings of William Hogarth such as A Harlot’s Progress which comments on the repressed attitude towards women and their often miserable fate. Interest in historical female figures in the first half of the eighteenth century was also fed by artists such as Bernard Lens III (1682-1740) who painted in miniature real and imagined women dressed as Mary Queen of Scots.

Gervase Spencer engraved several portraits of Nell Gwyn, of which versions are extant in the Royal Collection [RCIN 655589] and the British Museum [AN889152001]. These were etched in 1757 and 1753 respectively but are more modest depictions, showing Gwyn covered and wearing a bonnet. The difference between the etching for public consumption and the miniature for private delectation are clearly defined. As with Pepys in the previous century , the owner of this miniature had perhaps a desire to ‘own’ the woman through her portrait and the idea of doing this in the medium of portrait miniature was a particularly intimate form.
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