Amid the dizziness of London during Frieze weekend, a quiet new show casts fresh light on the artist at the heart of Restoration fashion: Peter Lely. The Dutchman came to seek his fortune in civil war England, finding patrons on both sides – Oliver Cromwell famously asked for a portrait “warts and all”. With the return of Charles II, Lely became “Principal Painter to the King” – his portrait of Nell Gwyn defines our image of the epoch. He took as his model Charles I’s protégé Van Dyck – a highlight of his own collection was Van Dyck’s “Cupid and Psyche”, and what Lely really wanted to do was paint pastoral elegies and fêtes champêtres, looking back to Titian. But they found little favour in his adopted “un-understanding land”, and this is the first exhibition devoted to his works in this genre.
The centrepiece is the Courtauld’s “The Concert”, featuring a self-portrait of the artist as the striking viol player who holds the picture aesthetically and thematically together. It owed something to the court masques popular at the Restoration court; indeed Lely’s Arcadias are most interesting as mythological counterparts to his real-world depictions of the languid culture of London’s intellectual epicures, roués and their mistresses.
“The Rape of Europa” has chic beauties crowding to pet the bull who will turn out to be Jupiter; there is no hint of violence. A drama of spotlit bodies in a darkened grove, “Nymphs by a Fountain” places five naked figures so that the human form is sumptuously viewed from every angle, with a group of putti and a dolphin echoing the arrangement; the allusion is to Ovid/Titian’s “Actaeon”, but all menace is absent. Sometimes, as in “Cimon and Iphigenia”, a theatrical curtain underlines the artifice of the construction; at others, as in the gold-curled, red-lipped androgynous “A Boy as a Shepherd”, Lely treads a tightrope between a lively sense of presence and idealisation.
Until January 13, www.courtauld.ac.uk