Carry on, your majesty: Charles II and his court ladies

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Get past the innuendo and the new exhibition at Hampton Court Palace offers a fascinating insight into King Charles II's appreciation of the female form, says Adrian Hamilton

Following 50 years of marketing Hampton Court as an outing for children, the Royal Palaces have decided to do something more adult. And what does that mean in Britain today? Lots of bosoms and plenty of cleavage, of course. Carry On lives on in the Royal Palaces in the form of a new exhibition devoted to Charles II and his court ladies, mistresses and all.

If that sounds a bit unfair to the curators, who are trying to move interest from Henry VIII and his ill-fated wives to the more peaceable rule of the Merry Monarch, Charles II, they've certainly pitched it as far below the belt as they can and still have children looking at the pictures. The Wild, the Beautiful and the Damned it is called, with the subtitle "the story of beauty, debauchery and decadent art at the late Stuart Court" Through sections entitled, in block capitals, "SLEEPING WITH THE KING", "TEMPTATION" and "MALE FANTASIES" and "AMBITION AND RISK" you proceed through a procession of portraits by Peter Lely and others, reading of the careers, marriages and death (all too often extremely young) of the girls who came to court to seek favour and fortune, and sometimes found it.

All this is rollicking good stuff and the Carry On team would have had as much fun with it all as the caption writers. The people who wouldn't have understood it in these terms were the people of the late Stuart period, who certainly took a highly robust attitude to sex but without the nod-nod, wink-wink that we – and certainly the curators of this show – seem to think as the only way of presenting it.

It's a pity because, beneath the bosoms and the innuendo is a perfectly good theme trying to get out. The age of the later Stuarts did mark a different spirit, in art as in writing, than the period of the earlier Stuarts. Compare the court portraits painted by Van Dyck under Charles I with the pictures by his successor under Charles II, Peter Lely. The Tudor and early Stuart portraits were there to display the wealth and power of the sitter, the jewellery, the dress and the coats of arms told you of position not personality. Lely's pictures of women, the "Windsor Beauties", are quite different. The women, painted with winsomely tilted heads in the pose of Roman goddesses, are nearly all dressed in looser, more informal clothes with very little jewellery, décolleté certainly but with the emphasis directed towards the youth and prettiness of their faces.

You can, as the exhibition does, present this as basically erotic. Young women (girls often) came to court as ladies-in-waiting primarily for the marriage market. But they are far more portraits of how women themselves liked to be shown than advertisements for male viewing. In that sense, Lely was the equivalent of modern photographers such as Norman Parkinson and Cecil Beaton.

The male gaze comes into play in the nudes. The exhibition has the Lely's famous Portrait of Nell Gwyn as Venus, which Charles II hung behind a landscape, which he swung back to allow favoured guests to peer at. Charles also commissioned the Italian artist, Benedetto Gennari (not Lely interestingly) to paint a series of erotic pictures of classical scenes. There's a quite extraordinary painting by Gennari of Cleopatra baring her bosom to the asp with her face flung back in an attitude normally associated with Baroque pictures of suffering saints.

You can make too much of the licentiousness of the court and decadence of its behaviour, however. Charles was exceptional in his flaunting of lowly born actresses as his mistresses and the extent to which he rewarded them with land and favours (his bastard sons were nearly all made dukes). But even in that there was method to his madness. He had returned to England not as a conquering hero but by invitation after a decade in which his father had been beheaded and the country was ruled as a republic. The years of living off other's favours on the Continent had made him, and his companions, hardened and unsentimental (nihilistic in the case of some like the poet Rochester, whose portrait crowning a monkey with laurel leaves is in the show).

He brought with him some of the desire for display and the flashiness of the French court, as well as a French mistress, Louise de Kéroualle. But the aim of the ostentation was as much to make the Crown a focus of popular interest and keep its nobility distracted as it was to indulge unwholesome appetites. The cult of beauty was there to feminise a culture that had gone through civil war and puritan ethics.

"Did these portraits objectify women?" asks the exhibition. "Were they little more than titillation for the HUSBANDS and LOVERS? Or did they allow women to take charge of their own image and direct their own SEXUAL DESTINY?" (The capitals are intentional). They're the wrong questions. The court in that period was about power and the Crown's ability to manipulate it shorn of the divine right to rule and the financial and military muscle of its Stuart forebears. Women remained secondary to that and, in some ways, less powerful than the well-born widows to wealth of the Tudor and early Stuart period.

Charles was modern in his understanding of the need for public popularity and the role of spectacle in getting it. He was also unusual even by modern standards in the fact that he was a man who actually liked women and enjoyed their company. The vision of monarchy portrayed in the splendidly over-the-top picture by John Michael Wright – Charles overdressed and with fleshy lips and bedroom eyes – is a whole world away from the way Holbein presented Henry VIII.

But Charles's court was also a final flash of royal brilliance in a course of continuous limitation of the monarchy. If he had hoped, as he must have, to emulate Louis' court in Versailles, his brother James put an end to that, bringing in a Dutch King of no French pretensions and ushering in a period of German rule in which Kings and Queens presented themselves more and more as gentry and less and less as royal. Feminine beauty remained a constant theme of portraiture – the exhibition has several of Godfrey Kneller's graceful "Hampton Court Beauties" – but the subjects in Hanoverian times were chaste aristocrats in Arcadian landscapes commissioned not by the crown but the landed wealthy.

The Wild, the Beautiful and the Damned, Hampton Court Palace, (0844 482 7777; hrp.org.uk ) to 30 September

Arts and Entertainment
Saw point: Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in ‘Serena’
film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
musicReview: 1989's songs attempt to encapsulate dramatic emotional change in a few striking lines
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker