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

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