Historical Portraits Picture Archive

(After Sir Peter Lely) Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland (bap.1640-1709) 

Thomas Gibson (c.1680-1751)

(After Sir Peter Lely) Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland (bap.1640-1709), Thomas Gibson
Oil on canvas
17th Century
73 x 44 in (185.4cm x 111.7cm)
Probably commissioned by John Poulett, 1st Earl Poulett (c.1668-1743) of Hinton House, Somerset,; Sotheby’s, London, 19 February 1969 lot 29; Bt. From above by a ‘Mrs Ward’ (£100); Private collection, UK.
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As the most notorious and most frequently painted of King Charles II's mistresses, Barbara Villiers Duchess of Cleveland remains one of the most enduring symbols of the indulgences and excesses of the Restoration Court. This portrait, which derives from a work by Sir Peter Lely painted c.1664, was painted by Thomas Gibson and until recently hung at Hinton House, the residence of John Poulett, 1st Earl Poulett, a great supporter and patron of Gibson.

At the Restoration Villiers was established as the king's favourite mistress and despite his marriage to Catherine of Braganza and the jealousy of other courtiers, she maintained a powerful influence at Court. At least three of her children were acknowledged as his by the king and by 1665 she was termed the maitresse en titre. Among her various liaisons was one in 1668 with the tragic actor Charles Hart in retaliation for the king's growing attraction for actresses such as Moll Davis and Nell Gwyn.

In 1670 she was created Baroness Nonsuch, Countess of Southampton and Duchess of Cleveland. This was a reward for her services but also a compensation for retirement. By the early 1670s her influence had been entirely supplanted by Louise de Kéroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth. After this she spent some time in Paris before returning to England a few months before Charles II's death in 1685. On the death of her husband Roger, Earl of Castlemaine in 1705 she married Major-General Robert Fielding, a bigamist who was jailed for threatening and maltreating his wife. She died of dropsy at Chiswick on 9th October 1709. Among her various illegitimate children by the King were the Duke of Grafton, the Duke of Southampton and Lady Charlotte Fitzroy, Countess of Lichfield.

Thomas Gibson was a leading portrait painter in London. Both a follower and a friend of Kneller’s, he was an early director of his Academy and his work was profoundly influenced by the Augustan style in which Kneller worked. He was a close friend of George Vertue and moved in clerical and intellectual circles, painting among others, Archbishop Wake, George Vertue and Locke, and is himself included in a large painting by Smibert, the ‘Virtuosi of London’. Gibson’s main patron was John Poulett, 1st Earl Poulett, for whom he painted a number of family portraits and who no doubt commissioned this portrait. His last recorded painting was in 1742 when he painted Augusta, Princess of Wales and her four children.
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