Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Nell Gwyn (1651-87) 

Simon Verelst (1644–1721)

Nell Gwyn (1651-87), Simon Verelst
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Oil on canvas
17th Century
40 5/8 x 49 5/8 in (103.2 x 126.1 cm)
 
Provenance:
Possibly Alexander Popham, MP (c.1660-1705) and thence by family descent to; Francis Leyborne-Popham (1809-80); Hugh Francis Arthur Leyborne-Popham (1864-1943); Sir Ernest Salter Wills, 3rd Bt, on purchasing the house in 1929; By descent until sold; Sotheby’s, London, The Contents of Littlecote House, 20-22 November 1985, lot 857; Private collection, UK
Literature:
C. MacLeod and J.M. Alexander, Painted Ladies: Women at the Court of Charles II (London, 2001), pp. 170-171 ‘Manuscript of Popham family personal accounts including bills for re-lining and cleaning paintings, Littlecote House’, 23 March 1846, recorded as ‘a Lady with flower by Verelst’, Somerset Archives and Local Studies, Somerset Heritage Centre. H.N. Williams, Rival Sultanas: Nell Gwyn, Louise de Kéroualle, and Hortense Mancini (London, 1915), p. 341 J.W. Parker, ‘Littlecoates [sic], Wilts.’, The Saturday Magazine, vol. 18, 1841, p. 130
Exhibited:
Exhibition of National Portraits, South Kensington Museum (later Victoria & Albert Museum), 13 April – 22 August 1868, no.740
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Nell Gwyn, represented in this outstandingly alluring contemporary portrait, is the most popular and warmly remembered mistress of Charles II. A London cockney, and self-described ‘Protestant whore’, she did not benefit as much from the astute self-promotion that portraiture afforded her more aristocratic counterparts Barbara Villiers and Louise de Kéroualle. Circulating in British collections there are, as a result, many false images that purport to be of her. Of those portraits that can be established with certainty, there are five memorable variants by Simon Verelst, of which this is the most lyrical owing to its sensitive depiction of the sitter holding a sprig of flowers. The other four, including one at the National Portrait Gallery [NPG 2496], portray her as here in décolletage – her breast or breasts acting as the unambiguous signal of her courtesan status. As a group they represent startling indicators of the uninhibited nature of Charles II’s love life and the sensual atmosphere of his court.

Simon Verelst began his career as a flower painter, first in The Hague and then in London from 1669, where his work was described by Samuel Pepys as ‘the finest thing that ever, I think, I saw in my life’.(1) He was one of three members of the Verelst family to move to London during Charles II’s reign; Herman Verelst – together with his infant daughter Maria – and Cornelius Verelst also came to work in the capital as artists. Among Verelst’s patrons was the Duke of Buckingham, who was said to have thought Verelst exceedingly vain and encouraged the artist to take up portraiture, hoping that he would fail, as he was untrained. Verelst instead excelled, becoming a popular court painter, with sitters including Charles II, Prince Rupert, James II, Mary of Modena and Louise de Kéroualle.(2)

It is quite probable that Nell Gwyn patronised Verelst herself, understanding the benefits of being painted by one particular artist, just as Barbara Villiers had been painted by Sir Peter Lely and Catherine of Braganza by Jacob Huysmans. Verelst’s style of portraiture suited Nell Gwyn well, with his dramatic use of enhanced chiaroscuro conveying an almost theatrical impression. In this portrait, Verelst’s approach cleverly complements Nell’s calling as an actress, as the ‘indiscreetest and wildest creature that ever was in Court’ and her charms as ‘pretty witty Nell’.(3)

Although Nell Gwyn spent much of her life as one of the most famous female celebrities of her time, her start in life was far from glamorous, being born into poverty in Coal Yard Alley in the parish of St Giles. According to Pepys, Nell was brought up in a bawdy-house, where it can be presumed her mother was a prostitute and where Nell may have been a child prostitute, before first working as a street vendor of herrings or raking cinders.(4) In 1663 she became an orange-seller at the Bridges Street Theatre with Mary Meggs, an eccentric and lively former prostitute known as ‘Orange Moll’.(5) From the theatre’s opening on 10 February 1663 ‘Orange Moll’ was granted a 39 year licence allowing her ‘to vend, utter and sell oranges, lemons, fruit, sweetmeats and all manner of fruiterer’s and confectioner’s wares’; oranges were an exotic luxury and cost sixpence each.(6)

Nell could not have been an orange seller for more than eighteen months, as in 1664 she made her stage debut at the age of fourteen. She was coached by her older lover Charles Hart, and she then went on to have a brief affair with Charles Sackville, Lord Buckhurst in 1667.(7) However, it was not until Nell starred in Secret Love, or the Maiden Queen that same year that she met Charles II who was present in the audience on the opening night and was enchanted by her wit and amiability; as their relationship grew, Nell playfully nicknamed Charles II ‘Charles III’, as he was her third Charles. By the time she was 21, the king had taken her off the stage for good.

In this portrait Nell is holding a six-petalled flower which has been identified as jasmine. As a flower painter, Verelst would have been familiar with jasmine’s structure and its traditional inclusion in portraits to signify the amiable nature of a sitter. Jasmine is well-known for its intoxicating scent, and this combined with its almost translucent petals and fragility, allows Verelst to play with the senses of sight, smell and touch, recognised devices characteristic of seventeenth-century Dutch painting.(8)

Verelst carefully constructs a narrative of unwrapping his sitter, first with the red fabric being draped up and out of the frame, then with a luxurious satin dress which has been unravelled and now sits across the top of her arm, and finally with her white undergarments, which balance precariously on the edge of her shoulders, untied at the front, falling away to expose her breasts. The pearl necklace she is wearing was purchased from Peg Hughes, mistress of Prince Rupert of the Rhine, and is said to have cost a phenomenal 4,000 guineas.

Charles II was known to have favoured brunettes for his mistresses, Lady Castlemaine, Louise de Kéroualle and Moll Davis were all dark haired. Nell, however, outlasted all her rivals with her slight build, beautiful red hair and hazel eyes; she was described as extremely quick-witted and good natured, with the highest intellect.(9) The king’s fondness for Nell extended to a generous pension of £4,000 a year from 1674 to £5,000 two years later.(10) Even on his deathbed Charles II requested that his brother continue to look after Nell, saying ‘let not poor Nelly starve.’(11)

(1) S. Pepys, The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Sunday 11 April 1669 (Raleigh, 1983), p.2282
(2) F. Lewis, Simon Pietersz Verelst 1644-1721 (Leigh-on-Sea, 1979), p.16
(3) Bishop Burnet’s History of His own Time from the Restoration of King Charles II, to the Conclusion of the Treaty of PEACE at Utrecht, in the Reign of Queen Anne (London, 1724), p.263; S. Pepys, The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Monday 3 April 1665
(4) C. Beauclerk, Nell Gwyn: A Biography (London, 2005), p.15
(5) G. Perry, The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons (London, 2011), p.35. Evidence for Nell Gwyn selling oranges: ‘A Ballad Called the Haymarket Hectors’ from 1671 taken from Nell Gwyn: The Story of her Life by Lewis Melville (London, 1900), p.206; a single folio sheet 1681, ‘A pleasant Battle between Tutty and Snapshort, the two lap-Dogs of the Utopian court’; and a poem attributed to Lord Rochester from Story of Nell Gwyn by Peter Cunningham (Edinburgh, 1908), p.6
(6) G. Hopkins, Nell Gwynne (London, 2000), p.23
(7) G. Perry, The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons (London, 2011), p.66
(8) D. Gaze, Dictionary of Women Artists: Artists, J-Z (London, 1997), p.572
(9) G. Perry, The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons (London, 2011), p.66
(10) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Online, Nell Gwyn.
(11) Bishop Burnet’s History of His own Time from the Restoration of King Charles II, to the Conclusion of the Treaty of PEACE at Utrecht, in the Reign of Queen Anne, (London, 1724), p.609

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