Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of James II, when Duke of York 1670s

Sir Peter Lely (1618-80)

Portrait of James II, when Duke of York, Sir Peter Lely
Oil on canvas
17th Century
15 x 12 1/8 inches, 38 x 32 cm
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This remarkably reflective portrait shows James when he was Duke of York, and displays the confidence that had earned him respect as the Lord High Admiral who defeated the Dutch fleet in 1665. But it also shows the solemn insouciance of a man whose troubled childhood – captured during the Civil War, and marked by his father’s execution – created an ineffective political operator who retreated into his own stubborn world, afraid of advice, and paranoid of disloyalty.

Here Lely has broken away from the restraints of genre that too often characterise his work, and has produced an intimately studied rendering of a King whose personal failings lost him his kingdom.

This portrait relates to the full-length painted in about 1665-1670 (for example, Royal Collection, Longleat) which effectively became James’ official image, and was engraved by Robert White. Owing to the high demand for portraits of the Duke of York (there were sixteen copies in Lely’s studio inventory at his death) in some instances Lely would have completed the head, and overseen completion by one of his talented studio assistants. This is just an such example, and once belonged to a full-length studio portrait which was largely damaged by fire. This autograph face, however, has remained in good rder and as a royal image is redolent of Lely’s vigorously baroque characterisation and lighting of the 1660s.

James II, the most peculiar of the Stuarts, can at once be categorised either as Britain’s most hapless monarch, or her most principled. While his grandfather and brother are famed for acquiring and re-acquiring their kingdoms, James, like his father, is famous only for losing his. Despite succeeding to the throne on a wave of popularity and loyalty in 1685, James was in exile just three years later – replaced by his own daughter Mary and her Dutch husband William of Orange. But in all of James’ decisions that led to the Glorious Revolution in 1688, it was an intense belief in the Catholic faith that drove him on.

Before his succession James seemed in many ways a suitable replacement for his brother Charles II. His military skill and judgement were certainly better, and his mistresses, though uglier, were less expensive and less interfering. His conversion to the Catholic faith in the 1660s, however, guaranteed hostility from the bulk of Britain’s ruling elite - indeed, he was successfully forced into exile in the early 1680s. It is difficult now to understand how strong the fear of Catholicism, or ‘Popery’, was in the eighteenth century, but its return had been tried twice before, via the burnt corpses of Mary I’s heretics, and the weak dilatoriness of Charles I. A third occasion would, it was feared, herald not only further bloodshed, but also the prospect of a supporting French army from Louis XIV. It was unsurprising therefore, that James’ stubborn and zealous attempts to forcibly rewind English history back some 150 years rapidly ended in failure.
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