IoS art review: Peter Lely: A Lyrical Vision, Courtauld Gallery, London

4.00

The mythological and biblical scenes of the artist's early career reveal a painter with a passion for erotic drama

On the first floor of the Courtauld Gallery there is a portrait of Sir Thomas Thynne, painted in the last decade of Sir Peter Lely's life, and gazing at a room of similarly confident characters. You know the sort of thing: ancestor to the Marquess of Bath and the late Diana, Princess of Wales, heir to Longleat, and politician, shortly to be murdered in Pall Mall, he is all bundled up in scrunchy rose madder satin, and casts a noble shadow – the very essence, in short, of the aristocracy in oils. And it is worth visiting Sir Thomas on the way up to Peter Lely: A Lyrical Vision, to put into perspective the rest of this arresting exhibition. For here are not the towering landowners and puffy-jawed heiresses that hover on the walls of the stately homes of England, but peachy-buttocked nymphs, gnarled artisans and music-makers, entranced by their art.

Lely was the name chosen by Pieter van der Faes when he set out from Holland in the early 1640s for fame and fortune in the English court. Inspired by the floral decoration on his family home in The Hague, and variously spelled, the name suggested the ornamental opulence that would appeal to his extravagant patrons, above all Charles II. But before leaving his native country he began on the 30 or so narrative paintings, of which the Courtauld owns Reuben Presenting Mandrakes to Leah. In this Old Testament scene, the childless Rachel intercepts Leah's order of mandrakes, said to aid fertility, in the hope of conceiving, and trades her night with the women's shared husband, Jacob. Lely's Leah is no advertisement for motherhood, her thick neck and flattened features inclined towards imperious Rachel. Nor do the mandrake mule – eldest child Reuben – and the other gargoyles stuffed around Leah trigger broodiness. But there is something in Rachel's disdain that feels familiar: Lely was an admirer of Titian – and would not only view his work in print form and in his wealthy patrons' homes, but purchase it, too. If he had not actually seen the fury of the goddess espied naked in Titian's Diana and Actaeon, he certainly knew something of a demanding woman's capacity for rage.

Everyone is altogether more cheerful, as the intended male viewer will be, in The Finding of Moses (1641), painted in Holland and the earliest picture in the exhibition to capitalise on the potential in both Old Testament and mythology for naked female flesh. Pharaoh's daughter, companions and attendants, one still wringing her hair after bathing in the river, are so surprised by the emergence of a baby from the floating basket, that they don't notice their clothes are slipping off again. Europa and her maidens are similarly challenged as they make garlands for Jupiter, disguised as a supine white bull. Fan of Titian as Lely was, how he would surely have loved to have confected that master's Rape of Europa, now in Boston: Titian's massive animal crashes, wild-eyed, into the waves, while Europa balances precariously between defilement and death by drowning. But movement is not Lely's strong point. His Europa contains one stumpy outstretched arm to suggest action; when it comes to passion, its drowsy aftermath is safer terrain.

Nymphs by a Fountain (circa 1654) with its suggestive water spout is dominated by the anterior and posterior views of already exhausted nudes, the parted garment of one revealing a shadow of pubic hair, the other, turned away, nonchalantly signalling the point of entry with a drooping hand. This was just the sort of thing to delight Charles II, three years on the throne. Lely's place in Restoration England was secure. And lucrative: alongside this exhibition runs one of drawings from the artist's collection of thousands, including works of breathtaking accomplishment by Parmigianino, and a copy of what is thought to be an early design by Michelangelo for The Last Judgement at the Sistine Chapel, a virtuoso display of muscular complexity that Lely, his early models invested with sausage limbs, could only dream of. He knew he must improve: in his own drawings made in 1665 of hands and arms he does his anatomy homework.

The security of royal patronage squashed art for art's sake: no more urchin boys in the manner of Caravaggio, as in the Tate's Boy Playing a Jew's Harp (1648-50), his luscious, possibly purloined, sash a hint at the voluptuous fabrics of affluent sitters to come. And no more infants, as lovely as Leah's are lumpen, carefully picking their way through a part-song as in Two Children Singing (1650). Music was Lely's pastime, and is the theme of the picture that dominates the show, The Concert, painted circa 1650, and showing, it appears, Lely himself on the bass viol. Behind him, an angelic young woman looks frankly at the viewer, a little flautist and second child to her right; and, between this group and two divine figures encased in a shower of red satin, is a female singer, her blue gown falling from a naked back.

Whatever its intended meaning, The Concert amply illustrates the amateur musician's departure from home-spun amusements to the blandishments of the court, from the open air to suffocating high society and Sir Thomas Thynne. But is this exhibition the end of that journey? The curator, Caroline Campbell, believes other narrative pictures are yet to come to light under the names of other painters, in châteaux, Schlösser or British attics. If there are underdressed damsels wilting by your header tank, you know who to call.

To 13 Jan (020-7848 2733)

Critic's Choice

See a new side of Barbara Hepworth at The Hepworth Wakefield Gallery where her series The Hospital Drawings, delicately showing surgeons at work, is on till 3 Feb. The winner of the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize was announced last week – congratulations, Jordi Ruiz Cirera. Drop into the National Portrait Gallery to see if you agree with the judges' choice (till 17 Feb).

Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
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.

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

    Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

    If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

    Paul Scholes column

    Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
    Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?