We are very excited to publish our 2017 catalogue. We have been fortunate over the last year to have made some very significant acquisitions including a number newly discovered works. The most remarkable of these is the previously unknown group of eleven sheets of studies by Sir Peter Lely. The group are published in our catalogue, but have already found a new home at the Yale Center for British Art where they will provide a fulcrum for the further advancement of our understanding of the development and practice of British portraiture in the seventeenth century.
‘Mr Lilly did often say to Mr. F[ever] that painting was nothing else but draft.’
This remarkable, previously unknown group of eleven sheets constitute a highly significant addition to Lely’s oeuvre and help elucidate important aspects of his working practice. The drawings are all of exquisitely rendered hands and arms, executed rapidly in black and white chalk on buff coloured paper. These beautifully articulated studies were all made from models and as a result offer a remarkable working archive of life studies which Lely used in his finished portraits. Drawings by Lely are rare – only approximately 80 sheets survive – the contemporary evidence confirms that at Lely’s death there were a great many more, now lost or unrecorded. The discovery of this group of drawings is therefore highly significant; the only comparable surviving group are the thirty drawings Lely made of the Garter procession in 1667, which are now scattered across the world.Whilst the Garter sheets are highly finished studies, the present set of drawings are more spontaneous and represent the most important body of ad vivum drawings by Lely in existence. The collection arguably offers more insight into Lely’s processes and practice as a painter providing a fresh perspective on the development of British portraiture between Van Dyck and Joshua Reynolds.
Peter Lely as draughtsman
Little is known of the drawings of Lely’s earliest master in Haarlem, Frans Pieter de Grebber, as Lindsay Stainton has pointed out, Lely’s own early drawings show the influence of Cornelius van Poelenburgh. A pair of drawings in the British Museum, Arcadian scene with a nymph advancing towards a couple seated and The Finding of Moses both of c.1641, show the early influence of van Poelenburgh. A few landscape studies, together with a couple of presentation drawings for early subject pictures have also survived, but the majority of Lely’s known drawings are preparatory studies for portraits. A number of highly finished chalk portraits survive. These compelling studies include the tender depiction of his friend Sir Charles Cotterell, now in the British Museum and the famed self-portrait, described by contemporaries as ‘craions’ they were clearly designed as finished works of art and are the only drawings he signed. Indeed a group were included in Lely’s posthumous sale where his executor, Roger North, specifically listed them as being ‘in Ebony frames’ and therefore ready for display. But these finished works are unusual, the majority of Lely’s surviving drawings relate directly to his work as a portrait painter.
We know quite a lot about Lely’s studio practice, thanks to a number of contemporary accounts and it is clear that drawing was central to his production of painted portraits. Lely seems to have made quick chalk sketches to catch a sitter’s likeness at a first sitting. In 1673 the painter William Gandy made observations about Lely’s methods, noting that he first: ‘slightly chalks out the body’, then laid in the face, and, ‘the person sitting in his intended posture’, he next sketched in the hands and clothes adding: ‘He does all this by the life presently whilst the person stays so you have a picture in an instant.’ This process is confirmed by another account from a contemporary. In the 1670s Lely’s friends, the painter Mary Beale and her husband Charles, a patent clerk, art dealer and colourman, commissioned a number of portraits from him, including one of the future Archbishop of Canterbury, John Tillotson. During the initial sitting with Tillotson, Beale observed Lely make a drawing: ‘first in chalk rudely & afterwards in colours and rubbed upon that a little colour very thin in places for the shadows, and laid a touch of light upon the heightening of the forehead.’ This ‘rude’ study was evidently designed to serve as a guide to Lely himself, at the same time acting as important material for use in his busy and productive studio.
These very rapid, full-compositional studies are exceptionally rare and it is possible that Gandy and Beale were describing an ideal method rather than Lely’s normal practice. It seems more likely that Lely relied on stock poses and instead made refinements from the life in the form of studies of hands, arms and costume.
The evidence suggests that Lely used drawings at every stage of the portraiture process. He probably showed prospective sitters drawings with various poses worked out to help them choose how they wished to be depicted; he made compositional sketches, such as that of Tillotson described by Beale, and then made studies as the painting progressed to work out costumes, poses and gestures. It is the latter group of studies which survive in greater numbers, suggesting that they were far more central to Lely’s practice. Beale describes Lely making a drawing whilst he was painting a portrait Beale had commissioned of his son, also called Charles, in 1672. Beale noted that after: ‘Mr Lely dead coloured my son Charles picture… he took a drawing upon paper after an Indian gown which he had put on his back, in order to the finishing of the Drapery of it.’ The evidence points to Lely having produced hand and arm studies in the same manner whilst he worked on a portrait. These sheets had a practical purpose. Hands and draperies constituted areas of secondary importance in the finished portrait, Lely would have reserved the valuable time he had with the sitter to concentrate on the face and expression. The drawings he therefore made during a sitting could be worked up on the canvas by assistants, or at the very least in the absence of the sitter.
Scholars have been slow to appreciate these process drawings, made during the execution of a portrait. Lely was famed for having stock poses, in his accounts, Lely’s executor, Roger North, added a number to Lely’s unfinished portraits, suggesting that each number corresponded to an established pose: ‘Whole length postures No. 8 & 1’, and ‘Sr. Ralph Verney ½ 49’, for example. Lely’s reliance on formulaic poses, on studio assistance and on replicating his own compositions has resulted in a degree of critical neglect. As Oliver Miller observed: ‘Lely’s reputation has suffered because it has made to rest so often on portraits in which he himself had no part and because among the portraits he did paint there is not sufficient variety in scale, in layout or in the relationship between the sitter and the spectator.’ But the versatility and subtlety of Lely’s portraiture is instantly visible in the hand studies he made during sittings. These intimate sheets neatly communicate Lely’s virtuosity and creativity, attempting to inject life into his conventionally arranged subject. A famous sheet in the Ashmolean of three hands – long identified as relating to two portraits, Frances Stuart, later Duchess of Richmond and Diana Kirke, later Countess of Oxford – shows how he experimented with the careful articulation of fingers and the iconography of his sitters. It is precisely this deliberate and exquisite versatility which is evident in the rediscovered group of thirteen hand studies discussed below.
The re-discovered drawings
The eleven sheets which comprise this spectacular, rediscovered group of drawings were all made from the life by Lely to help establish poses in his portraiture. The drawings are mostly on a characteristic buff-coloured paper, identical to that used in the Fitzwilliam, Ashmolean and Courtauld hand studies. All the drawings are executed in a distinctive combination of black and white chalks, whilst nine of the studies are strengthened with red or flesh coloured chalks. Lely was famous amongst his contemporaries for his use of media, particularly coloured chalks. Christiaan Huygens, who visited Lely’s studio in 1663, gave a detailed account of his techniques and materials in the letters he sent to his brother, Constantin. On his first visit Huygens noted Lely used a paper that was ‘un peu griastre’ (somewhat greyish, or merely coloured), ‘et n’employe de couleurs que dans le visage et cela encore légerement.’
The drawings can be separated into two distinct groups. Nine of the sheets show compositional studies of arms and hands, carefully and beautifully rendered; evidently made in preparation for portraits. The remaining four sheets are single studies of hands, handled more rapidly and schematically. All the drawings seem first to have been worked in black chalk, then strengthened with white or coloured chalk. This method fits contemporary descriptions of Lely’s practice. Gandy recorded an occasion when Lely demonstrated his method of drawing a figure:
‘Mr Lilly draws all things in this manner… as suppose it is a Figure. As bodys Armes legs he draws it in angles though there be never so many muscles, only a right stroke in this manner but is pretty sure in drawing of these angles, these are as foundations, then he mends it by degrees, till you see some muscles appear.’
This approach is legible in Drawing I., the two hand studies have been constructed with a rapid black chalk line, the shadow has been added in ‘angles’, or hatching, to strengthen or ‘mend’ the arms profile. This has been amplified by the addition of highlights in white and red chalk.
Turning to the subject matter of the drawings, some clearly relate closely to completed portraits. Drawing B. is a detailed, carefully articulated study for the hands of Lady Anna Grey, a portrait completed in 1658. The drawing is unusual in being such a precise design for the finished image, suggesting that Lely made the drawing during a sitting and passed it to an assistant for use in completing the finished portrait. Drawing M. is equally literal, the meticulously hatched hand study shows a hand holding a sprig of orange blossom was deployed by Lely in at least two portraits: Elizabeth, Countess of Kildare painted in c.1679 and now in the Tate Gallery, London and Lady Elizabeth Tollemache, later Duchess of Argyll.
Several of the sheets show Lely exploring variations on familiar compositions. Drawing E. is a careful design for a seated female figure, her left hand raised to her chest, the left hand resting in her lap. This is a variant on a prototype pose which Lely deployed in numerous portraits – for example the portrait of Mary Bagot, Countess of Middlesex and Dorset and Lady Penelope Nicholas painted in 1662 – but it seems not to link to a specific, known painting. This is true of a number of the studies, Drawing D. for example, clearly fits the general arrangement of one of Lely’s stock poses, in this case, a woman seated with her left hand placed on her chest and her right hand leaning on a rock, the purpose of Drawing D. was clearly to offer a specific alternative on a general theme, whilst working on a portrait. The meticulous rendering of the hands, particularly the articulation of the fingers demonstrates Lely’s remarkable ability to vary a familiar format, it also points to the importance of these drawings within the creative process. The most intensely rendered of the sheets, Drawing A., Drawing C., and Drawing F., for example, show both the facility of Lely’s handling and the breadth of his imagination. Throughout the drawings Lely shows hands in various expressive positions, carefully holding drapery and the fingers arranged differently in each: resting on a basin, holding an orb, flowers, hands gesturing and hands relaxed. It is the variations which point to these drawings having been made directly from the life, in the manner that Charles Beale described Lely drawing a section of ‘Indian gown’ above.
Initial investigation suggests that the drawings date from across his career. The dating of Lady Anna Grey to the 1650s suggests that some of the sheets were made before the Restoration, but the majority seem likely to date from the 1660s when Lely was at the height of his power and his studio was most productive. Further research will undoubtedly tie more of the drawings to specific paintings.
History of the drawings
The evidence of Lely’s surviving drawings suggests that a large number were left in his studio at his death. Studies, such as the sheet of arms and hands in the Ashmolean Museum, are marked with the distinctive ‘PL’ stamp, a mark applied to drawings found in Lely’s studio after his death by his executor, Roger North. Other drawings which must have been in the studio are not marked, such as the great Self-Portrait, either because they were not offered for sale or because they left the studio before the sale. The recently discovered group of drawings are not marked and seem likely to have left the studio before Lely’s death.
The internal evidence of the drawings themselves does not offer much help. The drawings appear to have been mounted into an album at the end of the seventeenth century or very early in the eighteenth century and the paper of the album has been dated by Peter Bower to c.1700. A fascicle of sheets containing this group of drawings were detached from a larger album at some stage and the backing sheet for Drawing A. which originally formed the start of this section of the album is carefully inscribed, in an eighteenth-century hand: ‘Drawings by Sir Peter Lely (undoubted)’. Drawing C. is inscribed on the verso ‘By Sir Peter Lely’ in an early eighteenth-century hand. There are no other collectors marks in evidence, so we know that the drawings did not form part of the substantial group of Lely drawings that belonged to the painter Jonathan Richardson.Many of Richardson’s drawings were acquired by his son-in-law, the painter, Thomas Hudson, this included a number of sheets by Lely, including the two now in the Witt Collection at the Courtauld.
One possible provenance is that they were given by Lely to his friend and fellow-painter Richard Gibson. We know Gibson owned a substantial number of drawings by Lely. Gibson left them to his son-in-law, Michael Rosse, a jeweller, and they appear in his posthumous sale in April 1723. The Catalogue of the Collection of Mr Michael Rosse, contains ten lots described as: ’10 Hands, &c. Sir Peter Lely.’No priced copy of the Rosse catalogue survives making it impossible to reconstruct the subsequent history of his collection.
This group of drawings appear to have been detached from perhaps a larger collection of drawings in an album as indicated by the inscribed section heading. This section appears to have remained intact and was acquired by a British collector in the 1960s. This group has remained in total obscurity until its recent appearance on the market.
This is perhaps the most important group of drawings by Peter Lely to come on the market since the eighteenth century. It is certainly the largest intact single group of compositional studies by Lely known to survive. The beautifully rendered studies were all made from models and as a result offer a remarkable working archive of life studies which Lely used in his finished portraits. The group, when considered together, offers an unprecedented insight into Lely’s working method. More broadly, the studies offer vital evidence for the role of drawing in the evolution of British portraiture in the generation after Van Dyck.