Travels with Barbara

Sir Peter Lely (1618-1680), portrait of Barbara Villiers, Countess of Castlemaine and Duchess of Cleveland (1640-1709), at Knole (inv. no. 129855). ©National Trust/Jane Mucklow

The Knole conservation team blog has been reporting how one of their paintings was recently packed up and sent off on loan to Hampton Court Palace. The picture, a portrait by Sir Peter Lely of Barbara Villiers, Countess of Castlemaine and Duchess of Cleveland, normally hangs in the Spangled Dresing Room at Knole.

The Great Hall at Knole. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

The relative humidity in that room can fluctuate considerably, and therefore the portrait was kept in the more stable environment of Knole’s Great Hall to acclimatise for several weeks before going off to the controlled climatic environment of the Hampton Court exhibition rooms. These humidity issues are one of the reasons for the major conservation project currently underway at Knole.

Old reference photograph of the Spangled Dressing Room at Knole, featuring Barbara's portrait by Lely second from right. ©National Trust

The picture will feature in the exhibition The Wild, the Beautiful and the Damned, exploring the lives and loves of the courtesans and libertines at the English court in the late seventeenth century.

Conservator Siobhan Barratt compiling a report on the condition of the portrait in prepration for its departure on loan. ©National Trust

Barbara Villiers became the mistress of King Charles II in 1660 and for some ten years reigned supreme as one of the most glamorous and powerful women at court. The diarist Samuel Pepys called her his ‘lovely lady Castlemaine’ and penned a heady description of seeing her freshly laundered smocks and petticoats drying in the Privy Garden. The more priggish John Evelyn called her ‘the curse of the nation.’

Barbara being put into her travelling frame. ©National Trust

Barbara’s influence extended to important political appointments and even foreign policy. She pursued the King relentlessly when she wanted something, but she could also be great fun and, in the words of Antonia Fraser in her biography of Charles II, she had ‘great buoyancy of spirit’.

Cloth tape is tied around the travelling frame in preparation for wrapping it in polythene. ©National Trust

She had at least five children by the King who were all given titles and estates (the current Duke of Grafton is descended from her, for instance). When her role as royal mistress came to an end she went on to have affairs with the rope dancer Jacob Hall, the actors Charles Hart and Cardell Goodman, the playwright William Wycherley and John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marborough.

Barbara is carefully hoisted into the art transport van. ©National Trust

Visitors to the exhibition may also meet a live ‘Barbara Villiers’ who will tell them more about life as the King’s mistress.  The exhibition will run at Hampton Court from 5 April to 30 September 2012.

9 Responses to “Travels with Barbara”

  1. Margaret McAvoy Says:

    “Countess” of Castlemaine? Or “Hussy” of Castlemaine? ;)

  2. Parnassus Says:

    As someone who comes from Cleveland, Ohio, I would expect the Duchess of Cleveland to be no less beautiful, sprightly, and even scandalous.

    Thanks for the glimpse into the humidity and conservation issues at Knole and concerning this painting, and for showing us the packing procedure for moving it. Quite interesting.

    –Road to Parnassus

  3. Blue Says:

    The Wild, the Beautiful and the Damned – so unlike to home life of our own dear Queen. It sounds delicious and maddening I shall miss it.

  4. Mark D. Ruffner Says:

    I recently read Eleanor Herman’s “Sex With Kings,” and came away feeling sorry for 17th and 18th century queens. It seems the mistresses were treated much better, though their role could be pretty precarious. I’m sorry to miss “The Wild, the Beautiful and the Damned,” but thanks for the link.

  5. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thank you all. Yes it is interesting how the conception of what is considered typical ‘royal’ behaviour has changed since the late seventeenth century.

  6. aalid Says:

    Found this really interesting and love the glimpses behind the scenes of the Trusts properties, hope you do not mind but I have linked back to this from my blog.

  7. Susan Holloway Scott Says:

    Though unpopular in history, Barbara Palmer has always been my favorite of Charles II’s mistresses. She was every bit the rival of men like Buckingham and Rochester (and of course Charles himself) when it came to outrageous behavior, and was perhaps the only true female libertine of the court. In addition to being beautiful, she had a bawdy wit, a ferocious temper, and that untrammeled appetite for life so much in favor during the Restoration. It’s really no wonder that she kept Charles beguiled for as long as she did.

    This is my favorite portrait of Barbara, too, looking wistful and uncharacteristically demure and showing off her famous “bedroom eyes.” I’m glad she’s getting so much TLC on her way to the exhibition. Wish I could see it!

  8. style court Says:

    The enticing exhibition title — a terrific example, I think, of the ways in which museums/curators are increasingly reaching out to the public, bringing to life the subjects in the old works in a more relatable (or at least thought provoking, dramatic) way.

  9. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Mage, thanks for the kind comments on your blog. Yes the Knole blog (where I got some of the images from) is particularly good at showing interesting behind the scenes stuff.

    Susan, you describe her much better than I have :) And I have just discovered that you in fact wrote a novel about her, entitled The Royal Harlot (http://bit.ly/xKnQgP)!

    It is interesting that you characterise the Knole portrait as being in ‘demure’ (or even ‘bedroom’) mode :)

    It can be an intriguing game to try to define someone by looking at the books in their bookcase – in Barbara’s case you can try to build up a picture of her personality by going though the list of her diverse and interesting lovers :)

    Courtney, yes indeed a great exhibition title – Hampton Court generally tries to push the boundaries in bringing history to life.

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