Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Robert Sydney (1626-1668) 1650s

Sir Peter Lely (1618-80)

Portrait of Robert Sydney (1626-1668), Sir Peter Lely
Oil on canvas
17th Century
30 x 24 inches 76.2 x 61 cm
Cairnbulg Castle, Aberdeenshire.
James Duff, 2nd Earl of Fife Catalogue of the Portraits and Pictures in the different homes belonging to the Earl of Fife. 1798. Incorrectly identified as the Duke of Monmouth.
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This assured portrait, most probably executed in Holland in the second half of the 1650s, demonstrates one of the high points of Sir Peter Lely's mature style. The lack of feeling for volume that characterised his earlier commissions for the Capel and Berkley families is quite gone; instead there is here a sense of solidity and movement. The sitter's arm seems almost to project out from the picture plane into the world of the viewer, an effect enhanced by the freely-painted sheen of the padded yellow sleeve, which is reminiscent of the Self Portrait at the Age of Thirty-six painted by Rembrandt in 1640 and of that picture's prime source, Titian's Portrait of a Gentleman, formerly thought to be Ariosto.

In every way this portrait is a virtuoso piece: only a painter who was entirely master of his technique could give such an impression of casual fluidity to a work that is in fact meticulously composed and executed. The creamy impasto that curls at the top of the cravat and forms the highlight along the side of Sidney's cuirass, and the bold strokes that make up the hair -lightened above the sitter's left eye with a loaded brush- and the sitter's sheer presence are effects that would be beyond a lesser painter.

The Sydney family was a member of the group known as ''the noble defectors'' , the Earls of Northumberland, Salisbury, Leicester and Pembroke, who had sided with Parliament in the Civil War, or had accommodated themselves to the Protectorate after the Royalist defeat. Their consciences led them to oppose such extremes as Laudianism and the Personal Rule, but this did not prevent them from being generous and enthusiastic patrons of the arts. These men had been patrons of van Dyck and it was most likely in their London houses that Lely would have been able to immerse himself in the paintings of van Dyck when he arrived in England in the 1640s. It was for this group, therefore, that Lely executed the majority of his early works in this country; early portraits of members of the Sydney family exist both at their seat at Penshurst Place and in the collection of the Spencers at Althorp, to whom the Sydneys were allied by marriage.

Unlike his brother Algernon, a prominent Republican whose principles took him to the block in 1683, or his father the Earl of Leicester, who swiftly made his peace with Parliament when he judged the Royal cause hopeless, Robert Sydney was a loyalist and a companion of King Charles II in exile. As his cuirass might suggest he chose a military career, this being one of very few acceptable employments for a peer's younger son, and in 1643 he was commissioned as a captain of the English regiment in the Dutch service. In 1648 he was promoted to Colonel, and he remained with the regiment in Holland until he was recalled to England by Charles II in 1665 and the regiment, later to be known as the Buffs, was placed upon the English Army Roll. His sojourn in Holland was not marked solely by military duty, however, as he was also notorious for an affair with Lucy Walters, later mistress to King Charles II. Rumour held that Sydney and not Charles was the father to the Duke of Monmouth, born in 1649, a belief that remained current throughout the Duke's life and was fuelled by the similarity in the appearance of the two men- indeed, a trace of this suspicion lingers in the misidentification of this sitter as Monmouth in the 1798 Fife catalogue.

There are several reasons for believing that this portrait was painted in Holland rather than in London. Stylistically it belongs in that part of Lely's work which was executed in the period immediately prior to the Restoration. Unlike the full-blown works that he produced from 1660 onwards, which in their use of colour and drowsy gesture help to define our concept of the English Baroque, the influences here seem to derive from Lely's Netherlandish roots. In its colouring and in the direct,unequivocal manner in which the sitter engages the viewer there are echoes of Lely's Dutch contemporaries, Jan Steen, Gerard ter Borch and Carel Fabritius. Lely is known, of course, to have carried his Netherlandish influences with him, and one might not necessarily presume a foreign sitting were it not for the fact that Sydney himself was not to return to England until 1665, a date which even at the earliest would make such a work as this stylistically unlikely.

It is, however, quite probable that the two men met in Amsterdam or The Hague. Lely held property in the latterm and must periodically have returned there to conduct business. More concretely we know that Lely was a close friend of the architect Hugh May, who lodged with the artist in Covent Garden during the 1650s, and whom Lely accompanied to Holland in 1656. May's errand was unspecified, but his career as a Royalist agent makes an introduction for the painter to the exiled court certain, particularly in the light of the Royal favour that Lely subsequently enjoyed. In any case, Sydney, a member of this court, was already known to the painter who had portrayed his brothers some years previously and enjoyed the patronage of his family. From these circumstances it seems most likely, therefore, that Robert Sydney sat to Lely in Holland towards the latter part of the 1650s.
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