Lely was born in Soest, Germany, of Dutch parents. In 1637 he was registered as a pupil of Pieter de Grebber in his father's home town of Haarlem. He came to London in about 1643, and in 1647 painted the children of Charles I, in custody during the Civil War. By the end of the Commonwealth, he was the best-known portrait painter in England and, after the restoration of Charles II, he was appointed Principal Painter to the king in 1661. His society beauties are heavy-lidded and sensuous whilst his portraits of Admirals (National Maritime Museum) show a more serious side to his art. The output of his studio was huge, Lely relied heavily on assistants. He was knighted the year of his death.