Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of King Charles II in his Garter Robes, early 1660s 

Sir Peter Lely (1618-80)

Portrait of King Charles II in his Garter Robes, early 1660s, Sir Peter Lely
Oil and Canvas
17th Century
95 ½ x 59 inches, 242.8 x 149.9 cm
At Woolley Hall, Yorkshire, seat of the Wentworth family, until sold by; Commander Michael Ewart Wentworth, RN, at Christie’s, London, 17th May 1957, lot 164; bt. Wiggins, for £105.0; American Private Collection.
This portrait of Charles II, painted in the early 1660s, was recently discovered in a minor auction in the United States, where it was sold as a work by an unknown artist. Here, Charles is portrayed by his court artist, Peter Lely, dressed in the robes of the Order of the Garter, in a work which would doubtless have been commissioned as part of a concerted effort to distribute royal imagery after the Restoration of 1660. The head type is Lely’s first of the new King, one which was repeated many times in different compositions, most often in half-length portraits with Charles wearing armour. The impressive and forceful quality of the head here, along with a significant pentimento (or alteration) in the eyes - where Lely shifted Charles’ gaze towards the viewer - suggests that it was amongst Lely’s earliest depictions of the king, and may even have been done from life.

The purpose of such pictures was overwhelmingly political. In iconographic terms, the picture’s primary message would have been conveyed by Charles’ association with Order of the Garter, England’s highest rank of chivalry. Not only is Charles dressed in Garter robes, but he wears Greater George chain and pendant, and sits beneath the Garter motto, ‘Honi Soit Qui Mal y Pense’ (loosely, ‘shame on him who thinks ill of this’). The Garter, abolished under Cromwell (not least for its religious associations), was the pre-eminent sign of royal authority in England. Its use had been continued by Charles during his years in exile in Holland, when the ability to confer the Garter was the most significant proof that the King still retained the mystique and power of monarchy. And in all his portraiture in exile, for example, Charles is always presented wearing either the Garter star, or the light blue Garter sash. Later, his similarly exiled Stuart descendants, the ‘Jacobite’ offspring of James III, would also use the Garter to demonstrate their legitimacy.

The Order of the Garter had been of great significance to Charles’s father, Charles I, who saw it as the tie that bound England’s greatest noblemen to him. Charles II, in turn, was especially fond of the trappings of chivalry, and took considerable pleasure in the opulence of the Garter costume. He and his fellows knights developed the habit of wearing robes not only for the Garter procession at Windsor, but for walking afterwards in Windsor Great Park, provoking criticism from (the perhaps still latently Cromwellian) Samuel Pepys, who wrote:

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