Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Hampton Court Beauties, The Countess of Peterborough (d.1709) 1690s

Edward Byng 

Hampton Court Beauties, The Countess of Peterborough (d.1709), Edward Byng
Oil on canvas
17th Century
16 34 x 11 3/4 inches (42.5 x 30 cm)
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The art historian George Vertue recorded at Whitton, the country house of Sir Godfrey Kneller ''12 small copies in oyl. ye beauties of Hampton Court''(1). It is quite possible that these three portraits originally formed part of this group, which are likely to have been executed by Edward Byng, Kneller's principal studio assistant, and retained by the artist as a record of this celebrated Royal Commission.

Kneller's set of full-length portraits, ''The Hampton Court Beauties'', were commissioned by Mary II in emulation of Lely''s ''Windsor Beauties''(2). They were described by Defoe as being ''of the principal ladies attending upon her majesty, or who were frequently in her Retinue''. The series commenced with the portrait of the Duchess of Grafton, painted during the January of 1690. Eight of the set were completed by the end of the following year, and are still in the Royal Collection. The Wardrobe Accounts for Michaelmas 1691 include a payment of 400 to ''Sir Godfrind Kneller Our Principal Painter for Eight pictures drawne att Length''(3).

They were placed by the Queen in the Water Gallery at Hampton Court where they were much admired. In his description of Windsor, Defoe mentions a full-length portrait of the Duchess of Portsmouth that Charles II believed was ''the finest painting of the finest woman in Christendom''. He goes on to state however that ''our English ladies of Queen Mary''s Court, were of another Opinion, and the Gallery of Beauties...which her Majesty placed in the Water Gallery at Hampton Court, shews several as good Faces, and as good Painting''.

The original size of the set of ''Beauties'' is not clear. Although there are only eight in the Royal Collection, Vertue saw copies of 12 at Whitton. Furthermore, John Faber jnr engraved a set of 12 in mezzotint as ''The Beauties''. In addition to those pictures in the Royal Collection, he included additional plates of the Duchesses of Manchester and Marlborough, the Countess of Clarendon and Queen Mary.

The portrait of Queen Anne (1665-1714), who holds a sprig of blossom in her hand, is based on a full-length (dated 1689) that is now at Blenheim Palace(4). The other two both relate directly to portraits in the Royal Collection. Carey Fraser, Countess of Peterborough (d.1709), who is depicted standing next to a statue of Minerva, was the daughter of Sir Alexander Fraser, Physician to Charles II. She Had been a Maid of Honour to Catherine of Braganza and married Charles Mordaunt, Earl of Monmouth and later 3rd Earl of Peterborough c.1678. Diana De Vere, Duchess of St Albans (d.1742)who stands beside an orange tree in a large, richly decorated earn, was the daughter and sole heiress of the 20th and last Earl of Oxford. She married Charles Beauclerk, 1st Duke of St Albans in 1694, and was First Lady of the Bedchamber and Groom of the Stole to Caroline of Ansbach when Princess of Wales.

(1) Vertue Notebooks, Vol. II, The Walpole Society, Vol. XX, 1932, p.68.
(2) Oliver Millar, The Tudor, Stuart and Early Georgian Pictures in the Collection of Her Majesty the Queen, 1963, Text, Nos. 351 -8, pp.146-8.
(3) P.R.O., L.C. 5/43, f.34.
(4) J. Douglas Stewart, Sir Godfrey Kneller and the English Baroque Portrait, 1983, No.43, p.91.
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