Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of King Charles II (1630 - 1685) 1675c.

Mary Beale (1633-99)

Portrait of King Charles II (1630 - 1685), Mary Beale
Oil on canvas
17th Century
18 x 14 ½ inches 45 x 36.5 cm
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This portrait of King Charles II in armour is painted by the distinguished female portrait painter Mary Beale after a portrait type by Sir Peter Lely, datable to the mid 1670s. Specifically, due to the painting’s association with a further Beale copy of a portrait of Sir Thomas Isham of c.1675 it can be related to a version of that portrait at Lamport Hall, the seat of the Isham family, and presumably commissioned from Lely’s studio at the same date that the then-owner of Lamport, Sir Thomas Isham (1657 – 1681), sat for his portrait by Lely.

The pose of the King standing in armour and leaning on a column which bears his plumed helmet is one ‘reserved [by Lely] for his most illustrious patrons’1 and examples include a portrait of Thomas Butler Earl of Ossory acquired by Duke Cosimo III for his collection at the Pitti Palace. This latter portrait was - after protracted dispute over the price – painted and consigned between mid-February and late May 1677, and confirms that the Lamport picture represents one of the artist’s most current patterns for the date. The original portrait at Lamport was not, however, unlike the Butler portrait now in the Uffizzi, an autograph work by Lely, but the work of his studio. Beckett2 recognises that so many versions of this portrait type that exist all appear to share studio authorship, and it is probable that the autograph prototype is either lost or not yet recognised.

Mary Beale alone in this period seems to have devoted particular energy to this smaller format. On this scale she painted both original compositions and copies of portraits by her friend Sir Peter Lely. These works - ''in little'' as the painter refers to them - occupied as much of Mary Beale’s time as her portraits on the scale of life. They were also, both in recognition of this fact, and of the expense of the pigments that she employed - as costly or more as the larger portraits - and Beale would charge as much as £11 for them3. It has been suggested that owners of paintings may have commissioned small versions of large portraits already in their possession for their (smaller) town houses.

The friendship between Sir Peter Lely and Mary Beale enabled her, famously, to observe the master in the act of painting – a remarkable privilege – in order to study his technique, and she is known to have copied his work upon many occasions. From paintings such as these present examples it appears that she also enjoyed a unique franchise to reproduce his portraits for sale in this reduced format.

1. Sir Oliver Millar and Anna Maria Crino Sir Peter Lely and the Grand Duke of Tuscany Burlington Magazine April 1958 100: 661 p.129
2. RB Beckett Lely Routledge, Keegan Paul 1951 p.39
3. Tabitha Barber Mary Beale Portrait of a seventeenth century portrait painter, her family and her studio Jeffrey Museum 1999 p.85
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