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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham and Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
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.

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering