The Wild, The Beautiful and The Damned at Hampton Court

5 April 2012

So yesterday, I scampered off to Hampton Court Palace for the press preview of the new The Wild, The Beautiful and The Damned exhibition which has taken over Queen Mary II’s former apartments there. Well, I didn’t so much scamper as sidle but never mind. I don’t often get to see half past four in the morning and it’s not a pleasant sight.

In the sumptuous accompanying book which we were very kindly given in our press bags, the chief curator, Lucy Worsley writes that one of the purposes of the exhibition, besides showcasing some of the most lusciously beautiful art ever painted, is to show off the Stuart rooms in the castle, which are often overlooked in the rush to gawp at Henry VIII’s kitchen and the russet toned and evocative Tudor rooms. This is, I think, an immense shame as the Stuart and Georgian rooms of the palace are an absolute delight to visit.

The Wild, The Beautiful and The Damned focusses on the decadent and often sensual portraiture of the later Stuart courts from the triumphant return from exile of Charles II through to the rather less thrilling reign of poor old Queen Anne.

The exhibition opens with a triumphant portrait of Barbara Villiers, Countess of Castlemaine dressed as Athena with a decided twinkle in her heavily lidded eyes. From this point on you are led past some extraordinarily glamorous portraits of sultry, sloe eyed, peachy skinned beauties dressed in shimmering silks and showing off a King’s ransom of pearls.

It ends on a far more dark note with a portrait of an elderly Barbara dressed in sombre black – although the portrait’s caption informs us that she was still having amorous adventures in old age.

Each portrait tells a story, not of some ancient mythological tale but of duels, wicked poets, forbidden love, envious husbands, poisoned young wives, bawdy artists, elopement, fabulously expensive gold dresses, illegitimate children and at the centre of it all, King Charles himself who presides over one of the rooms in his wonderfully flamboyant Coronation portrait. I stood for a long time in front of it, noticing for the first time the expression of mingled relief and amusement on the King’s saturnine face.

Opposite the portrait of Charles II, there is a very large disordered bed, with a copy of the famous nude portrait of Nell Gwynne. Legend has it that the King hid this painting behind a rather more sedate landscape in his private rooms and would only reveal Nell’s likeness when in the company of his closest friends.

The exhibition takes visitors on a journey through the Queen’s State apartments, where they will learn more about the dark side of life at the Stuart court where youth, beauty and novelty are highly prized but can also lead to the destruction of the more unwary. It begins with the dazzling loveliness of the more successful court ladies like Barbara Castlemaine, Louise de Kerouaille, Frances Stuart and Hortense Mancini but there is a reminder of the less happy Lucy Walters, Charles’ mistress during his exile in the Hague and Paris, who died in obscurity, allegedly of syphilis.

On display together are the famous ‘Windsor Beauties’ of Lely and their later rivals, the ‘Hampton Court Beauties’ by Kneller – all of them gorgeous as ripe peaches and just as pampered. Their heavily lidded eyes inviting admiration from the viewer. My favourite is the luscious Jane Middleton who looks almost narcoleptic such is the sleepiness of her gaze and has the most wicked smile. Like so many ladies, poor Mrs Middleton had to endure the censure of a rejected lover who denounced her to posterity as smelly.

It’s often said that all of Lely’s female (and some of his male) subjects look much the same, something that was noted in his lifetime and blamed on his commissions for Barbara Castlemaine, whom he believed to be the epitome of female beauty, causing him to model all of his female sitters after her. After all, who wouldn’t want to be made to look a bit like the Countess of Castlemaine?

I really love the portrait of Frances Stuart, later Duchess of Richmond, who was painted by Lely in full exuberant beauty; vivacious and lovely in shimmering yellow silk. I’ve often wondered why her contemporaries seem to have been so entranced by Frances, who was the daughter of one of Henrietta Maria’s doctors during her exile in Paris, but I think I finally got it while standing in front of her portrait.

We were treated to a very lively and interesting guided tour by Brett Dolman, the exhibition’s curator who has 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 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.’

There was a moment when I was listening to Mr Dolman talk about the way that the women of the court used their beauty to ensnare me, when I looked across at the portrait of the future James II with his rather un-beautiful wife Anne Hyde, whom he courted scandal and familial disapproval to marry, and their daughters, Mary and Anne and thought, you know, it wasn’t all about beauty. Or maybe James didn’t have quite the same voluptuous tastes as his brother, Charles. Maybe she gave excellent back rubs?

No exhibition on the lascivious underbelly of Charles II’s glittering court would be complete without the presence of the Earl of Rochester and his monkey.

I love the detailing on this portrait of Queen Maria, the second wife of James II. If you ever get to see it in person, just take a look at the way that paint has been used to render the embroidery on her rather becomingly manly coat.

I’ve always loved this painting of Charles II dancing at The Hague to celebrate his return to the British throne. I’ve never before noticed that he actually appears twice as there’s also a banquet scene tucked into the corner.

I thought the exhibition was absolutely stunning. It’s a complete delight to have such marvellous portraits gathered together in such an evocative place and also so beautifully presented with gorgeous flounced swags gathered over the top of each painting. As I’m working on a novel about Henrietta, Duchess of Orleans (who didn’t feature, oh woe) I was really keen to both visit somewhere connected with the later Stuarts and also immerse myself in their times and the dark and decadent beauty with which they surrounded themselves and boy did this deliver.

The Wild, The Beautiful and the Damned is running until the 30th September 2012. There’s also and accompanying fabulous programme of ‘Salacious Gossip’ tours (£25 per person on Friday and Sunday nights and absolutely NOT for children) and lectures by Brett Dolman, Jenny Uglow (I’d love to go to this one as I love her book The Gambling Man: Charles II and the Restoration), Aileen Ribeiro (my art history heroine!) and others.

Further reading:

Beauty, Sex and Power: A Story of Debauchery and Decadent Art at the Late Stuart Court (1660-1714)