Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Elizabeth Wriothesley, Countess of Northumberland, and later Countess of Montagu (c.1646 – 1690) 1668c.

Studio of Sir Peter Lely (1618-80)

Portrait of Elizabeth Wriothesley, Countess of Northumberland, and later Countess of Montagu (c.1646 – 1690), Studio of Sir Peter Lely
Oil on canvas
17th Century
50 x 40 inches, 127 x 101 cm
Dukes of Manchester; Kimbolton Castle sale July 18th 1949, lot 186; American Private Collection.
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Lady Wriothesley was a famous court beauty during the latter half of the seventeenth century, and thus one of the most frequently painted women of her generation. She was the subject of several compositions by Sir Peter Lely in the 1670s, of which this is probably the earliest type, from 1668. Her portrait was included in two series of ‘beauties’ commissioned from Lely, one at Hampton Court, and the other for Cosimo de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany.

As daughter and co-heiress of the wealthy and influential Thomas, 4th Earl of Southampton, Elizabeth Wriothesley was destined to be one of the great attractions at Charles II’s court. She was first married in 1662, and at the age of sixteen, to Joceline Percy, 15th and last Percy Earl of Northumberland. When he died in 1670 of a fever at Turin, his wife was free to take herself and her fortune elsewhere, and, having made a favourable impression on Ralph Montagu, the King’s ambassador in Paris, she became Lady Montagu in August 1673. Her ambitions were said to have reached higher even this, and she was reputedly disappointed in her ambition to become Duchess of York.

Elizabeth’s marriage to Montagu was, by all accounts stormy. Montagu, certainly, seems to have followed the example of his priapic monarch, and was heartily involved in affairs and scandals. There were rumours of an alleged relationship with the King’s mistress Barbara Villiers, whom Montagu later betrayed to the King for having an affair with another man. Villiers in turn denounced Montagu, who spent the remainder of the Stuart period out of ‘favour’. He and Elizabeth had three sons and one daughter. She did not live to see her husband elevated to the Dukedom of Montagu under William and Mary, but predeceased him, dying at Boughton in September 1690.

This portrait is an excellent studio version of a picture now at Alnwick, in the possession of the Duke of Northumberland. Lely’s studio techniques followed the practice of his predecessor as the dominant portraitist of the age, Sir Anthony Van Dyke. Portraits of prominent subjects of their day, especially Royal and court sitters, were in much demand after the Restoration of 1668, when society rushed to embrace the florid grandeur of the Carolinian monarchy. Lely’s many talented studio assistants, among them John Greenhill and Prosper Henry Lankrink, would have been regularly occupied in making the highly accomplished copies seen here, deploying all the skills and technique of the master himself. This picture was in the possession of another branch of the Montagu family, the Dukes of Manchester at Kimbolton Castle.
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