Hampton Court Palace
Until 30 September 2012
Tel: 0844 482 7777
Sex sells. It did three hundred years ago, and it does now. At least, that is what the organisers of this, their second temporary exhibition at Hampton Court, hope to achieve. The first one they staged back in 2009 was entitled Henry‘s Women and centred around Henry VIII‘s six wives and two daughters. The theme of this one is again women, those associated with Charles II, to be precise, but they were a much looser and debauched collection than their Tudor counterparts. Charles II was restored to the throne after Oliver Cromwell‘s Commonwealth failed, and he brought back with him from his continental exile a defiant rakishness and arrant wantoness, which had been sorely lacking in the previous period of the Protectorate’s prudish puritanism. It was as though someone had thrown open the shutters and let the sun shine in, in the form of open sex, the public parading of mistresses, debauchery on a Rabelaisian scale and the accompanying doses of syphilis. Charles had a number of mistresses including the infamous Nell Gwynne, an actress, whose longevity as a royal mistress was down to her sense of humour and the fact that she was not hampered by political intrigues and an aristocratic background. Charles had her painted by Peter Lely in the nude, and is alleged to have stowed the painting behind a landscape in his private rooms at Whitehall Palace for his, and his lascivious cronies’, delectation. Barbara Villiers was a famous court beauty, who was both duplicitous and unfaithful, both to her husband, and the King. She, too, was painted by Lely and became his muse, posing as Minerva, the goddess of wisdom and the Virgin Mary. To modern eyes, these painted beauties may not appear quite so alluring, with their heavy eyelids, pouting lower lips, double-chins and tennis-ball breasts, but to the gallants and courtiers of the day, they were the equivalent to Princess Diana and Kate Middleton. This new-found freedom also gave some women a certain empowerment in terms of managing their own affairs, literally., but those heady days did not last, and by the death of Queen Anne in 1714, the ‘beautiful revolution’ was over. This exhibition illustrates the rise and fall of debauchery under the Merry Monarch, using wonderful paintings and artifacts from the Royal Collection, including the glorious portrait of Charles II himself by John Michael Wright. Even in his finery, he looks every inch a rake. In 1674 John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, wrote a savage ‘satyre’ on Charles II, which included the lines
Peace is his aim, his gentleness is such,
And love he loves, for he loves f***ing much.
Nor are his high desires above his strength:
His scepter and his prick are of a length.
Merry, extravagant and licentious, ‘he wastes all his nights in the constant delights of reveling, drinking and whoring.’ He was only 55-years-old when he died, which comes as no surprise.
By Don Grant