Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Mary ‘Moll’ Davis (c.1651-1708) 

Studio of Sir Peter Lely (1618-80)

Portrait of Mary ‘Moll’ Davis (c.1651-1708), Studio of Sir Peter Lely
Oil on canvas
17th Century
49 ½ x 39 ½ inches, 128 x 100 cm
With Leggatt Bros.; Christie’s London, 30th October 1952, lot 53, as ‘Lely’; Bt. J. Mitchell for £25.4.0; American Private Collection.
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Moll Davis was one of Charles II’s most renowned mistresses. Her rivalry with Nell Gwynn, a fellow actress, resulted in the famous story of Gwynn illicitly feeding Davis an overdose of laxatives shortly before she was due to visit the King’s bedchamber, with predictable results. The best contemporary accounts of her come from Samuel Pepys, who admired her singing and acting, believing it better than Nell Gwynn’s. Most of all he liked her “very fine legs”. Mrs. Pepys, on the other hand, thought she was “the most impertinent slut in the world.”

Little is known of Davis’ origins. Pepys believed her to be “a bastard of Collonell Howard, my Lord Barkeshire”, although it is also alleged that she was the daughter of a blacksmith on the Earls of Berkshire’s estate, Charlton, in Wiltshire. She was one of the more popular actresses after the Restoration, performing with the Duke’s Theatre Company, the ‘Duke’ being the future James II, then the Duke of York. Such royal patronage inevitably brought Davis under the priapic gaze of Charles II, and by 1668 she was an acknowledged royal mistress. On 11th January that year Pepys recorded that “Miss Davis is for certain going away from the Duke's house, the king being in love with her, and a house is taken for her and furnishing; and she hath a ring given her already worth 600L[£].” By 1669 Davis was living in Suffolk Street, and was the possessor of “a mighty pretty fine coach”.

Despite the legend of her rivalry with Gwynn, Davis seems to have remained popular with Charles II right up until his death in 1685. She bore Charles his last child, a daughter called Lady Mary Tudor. Mary was granted an annuity of £1500 in September 1683, and in 1687 married Edward Radcliffe, later Earl of Derwentwater. Davis married the composer James Paisible after Charles’ death, and for a time resided at the court of the exiled James II in France. She returned to London in 1693, and died in 1708, in Soho.

This portrait of Davis is a replica of Lely’s lost original painted between 1665-70. A slightly later copy is in the National Portrait Gallery, London. Mary Beale painted a smaller version [formerly with Philip Mould Ltd], which, like the present variant, would have been painted to meet the demand for what one might describe as contemporary ‘pin-ups’. Interestingly, Beale noted a portrait by Lely of ‘Mrs Davis with a gold pot’ at Baptist May’s rooms in Whitehall in 1677. A satire of 1681 suggested that Davis was Baptist May’s mistress, kept at the King’s expense. The depiction of Davis here with the gold unguent jar of St Mary Magdalen places her in the guise of the reformed sinner, as well as providing a witty conceit for the display of a rather revealing décolletage.
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