The Wild, the Beautiful and the Damned

6 January 2012

I was very excited to hear about the new upcoming exhibition at Hampton Court Palace this summer: The Wild, the Beautiful and The Damned, which looks at the beautiful and rather decadent art work produced under the aegis of the later Stuart courts.

This is particularly well timed for me as I am working on a novel about Charles II’s youngest sister and need to go to Hampton Court Palace any way for a bit of a research poke about. I’ve been looking at a lot of Lely paintings lately as part of my work on this book and as usual have fallen hopelessly in love with his peachy, drowsy eyed, sultry lipped sitters. Okay, they may well all look pretty much the same but, seriously, who cares when they look completely gorgeous?

The Wild, the Beautiful and the Damned, explores the meaning of beauty, and the lives and loves of the courtesans and libertines who lived and died in the Stuart Court during the reigns of Charles II, James II, William III & Mary II and Anne (1660-1714).

At the heart of the exhibition will be portraits of Charles II’s principal mistresses, including Nell Gwyn and Barbara Villiers, brought together at the palace for the first time. Also on display are the resident ‘beautiful women’ of the Royal Court: Peter Lely’s ‘Windsor Beauties’ and Godfrey Kneller’s ‘Hampton Court Beauties’, as we explore their lives and reputations amidst the elegance and decadence of the late 17th century. They will be joined by other Royal Collection paintings, rarely seen portraits from private and public collections, and exquisite fashion accessories, as the exhibition brings to life the glamour and magnificence of the Baroque period.

Visitors will be taken on a journey through the Queens State apartments, guided by the lives of the virtuous and the corrupt. Discover what beauty meant at court – how to display grace and how to use looks to gain attention and influence. Visitors will learn about the beauty secrets of the day, marvel at the fashions and elegance of court life, but also learn what happens when beauty fades, and when a life of virtue is rewarded by obscurity, and a life of vice by syphilis and death. The exhibition explores the story of how kings, queens and courtesans swept away the Puritanical solemnity of the mid-17th century, and attempted to rewrite the moral code of social behaviour.

Brett Dolman, Historic Royal Palaces exhibition curator, said: “Visitors to the exhibition will discover that ‘Beauty’ is not just an aesthetic experience: it is an instrument of ambition, a conduit to pleasure and a magnet for sleaze. This is a story about great art, but also about mistresses and adultery. Visitors will understand what beauty meant and how it was used in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and they will reflect, perhaps, on their own appreciation of beauty today in the 21st century.

The exhibition explores the ambiguity at the heart of Hampton Court Palace; beauty was a good thing, a reflection of divine perfection, an indication of virtue, but it was also a good excuse to decorate your bedchamber with soft-core private delights. Beauty was admired and revered, but also pursued and possessed. In the exotic world of the Restoration court, beauty could be exploited: women used it to command a new personal and political influence at the heart of government, but were themselves chased and abused, pilloried as whores.”

Charles II, the ‘merry monarch, ruled for twenty-five flamboyant, indulgent and decadent years and pursued ‘beauty’ in all its forms. He ruled over a court famous for its elegance and its magnificence, and he collected artworks and mistresses with equal enthusiasm. He fathered a dozen illegitimate children, but left no legitimate heirs. His brother, James II, matched a similar thirst for infidelity with a less acceptable taste for catholicism, and was turfed out of the country after only three years as king. James’s two daughters, Mary and Anne, who had grown up amidst the debauchery of the Stuart court, each became queens in their own right. The beautiful baroque splendour of Hampton Court was remodelled during the dying days of the last Stuart queens.‘ — from the official press release.

I absolutely cannot wait to see this and will, of course, be reported back to you all straight away just as soon as I have! I can’t imagine anything more splendid than seeing these wonderful art works in such a fabulous setting.

The Wild, The Beautiful and the Damned is running from the 5th April 2012 until the 30th September 2012. Tickets are £15.40 for adults and £7.70 for children under sixteen. There are also going to be special late openings on the first Monday of every month between May and September and also ‘Salacious Gossip’ evening tours giving raunchy little titbits that aren’t suitable for children’s ears!

I’ll be combining my visit to this with a trip to Kensington Palace, which reopens on the 26th March after a £12 million transformation. I can’t wait to see the Victoria Revealed permanent exhibit that I was told about on my visit to the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection and also the new display of dresses worn by Diana, Princess of Wales.

(Many thanks to Tim, the HRP press officer for the information and poster picture!)

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