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 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.
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.
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’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’.
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.
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.