Peter Lely’s exquisite depiction of Anne Hyde, commissioned by her father, the Earl of Clarendon, exemplifies how an important patron could use portraiture not just to record a likeness, but to present a sitter in a way in which they wanted to be seen.
Anne secretly married the Duke of York (the future James VII and II) in 1660, when she was seven months pregnant. The marriage, once it was made public, was highly unpopular as Anne wasn’t thought to be of a high enough social rank to marry into the Stewart family, and also because her father, who was Charles II’s chancellor, was hated by many influential courtiers.
It was vital for Anne to be shown as a worthy addition to the royal family, and having such a grand portrait painted was one method of presenting her in a favourable light. Peter Lely, Charles II’s Principal Painter and the most fashionable artist at the Restoration court, was chosen to paint Anne, who would eventually become one of his greatest patrons.
The composition deliberately shows Anne as a virtuous, and therefore suitable, bride, by showing her cooling her hand in a fountain, an action that would have been understood by anyone looking at the portrait as a reference to Proverbs 5:18, “Let thy fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of thy youth”. It was displayed, along with its pair of the duke, in Clarendon’s famous portrait gallery where it would have been seen by a large number of people, and so this message would have reached a large audience.
This portrait will be included in one of the inaugural exhibitions, Church and State, when the Portrait Gallery reopens in 2011. The portrait has been chosen for Portrait of the Month to coincide with the display Sir Peter Lely: Artist and Collector currently on show at the National Gallery, which includes several works on paper from the Portrait Gallery collection.