Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Lely, Peter
LELY, Sir PETER (1618–1680), portrait-painter, born on 14 Sept. 1618, was son of Johan van der Faes, alias Lely, a captain of foot in the service of the States General, and Abigail van Vliet, who belonged to a good family of Utrecht. His father's family resided at the Hague, and his father was born in a house which bore a lily for its sign; hence the additional name of Lely, by which alias the father was known, and by which name alone his son Peter was known in England. It is usually stated that the painter was born in Soest in Westphalia. His father, who latterly served under the elector of Brunswick, was quartered in garrison there, but it seems more probable that he was born in the village of Soest by Amersfoort, and near Utrecht, his mother's home. The former story is traceable to the authority of Arnold Houbraken, who himself advances it as a conjecture (see Grosse Schouburgh der Niederländischen Maler und Malerinnen, ed. Würzbach, 1880). Vollenhove, a native of Zwolle in Holland, celebrates Lely in song as his compatriot. S. van Hoogstraaten speaks of him as our ‘Geldersche Lily’ (Inleiding tot de Hoogeschool der Schilderkunst). Under the designation of ‘Pieter van der Faes, alias Lely, at present in England,’ he was a party to a family deed on 4 Dec. 1679 (preserved in the notarial records at the Hague), and he left legacies in his will to the son of his sister Catharina, who married Conrad Wecke, burgomaster of Groll in Guelderland.
Lely when young showed more aptitude for painting than for a military life. His father accordingly sent him to Haarlem, as pupil to Franz Pietersz de Grebber, a painter of great merit in that town. From a payment in the accounts of the guild of St. Luke at Haarlem we learn that Lely was working under De Grebber in 1637 (Van de Willingen, Artistes de Haarlem). De Grebber painted some of the great portrait groups now in the Haarlem Museum, and by the time Lely arrived at Haarlem Frans Hals had completed his finest work in that branch of art in the same place. Though Lely could hardly help being impressed by these masterpieces, his style does not appear at any time to have been influenced by them. He made great advances in his own manner, and gained a reputation, according to Houbraken, even among the many excellent portrait-painters then at work in Haarlem.
In April 1641 Lely came over to England in the train of William, prince of Orange, who on 2 May was married to Mary, the daughter of Charles I. Portraits which Lely painted of the young couple were widely appreciated. They are now in the possession of the Earl of Crawford and Balcarres (Stuart Exhibition, 1889, Nos. 95, 100). Lely appears to have modelled his earlier style in England on that rendered fashionable by Vandyck, who died in December 1641, and his study and admiration of Vandyck doubtless produced in his earlier work a restraint and sobriety which is wanting in that of his later and more successful years. In August 1647 Charles I was confined as a captive in Hampton Court, and during his captivity Lely was introduced to him by the Earl of Northumberland. Lely then painted the striking portrait of the king receiving a note from the hands of the youthful Duke of York (ib. No. 76). This picture, on which Lovelace wrote a poem, is now at Sion House, Isleworth, in the possession of the Duke of Northumberland, who also possesses Lely's receipt for 30l. in payment for the picture.
During the Commonwealth Lely continued to enjoy considerable private practice. He painted Cromwell, as Vertue records on the authority of Captain Winde the architect [see under Cromwell, Oliver]: a portrait of Cromwell, aged 51, by Lely, is now in the Pitti gallery at Florence.
On the Restoration Lely was at once advanced to high favour by Charles II, who gave him a pension, and kept him continually employed. From this time to his death Lely's career was one of increasing success and prosperity. The royal family, the royal mistresses and their children, ministers of state, generals, dukes and duchesses, and all the nobility and gentry of England competed for the honour of sitting to him. The king frequently visited his studio, and treated him familiarly as a personal friend. He was diligent and regular in his hours of painting, and painted from nine in the morning to four in the afternoon. A list of sitters was strictly kept, and no consideration was paid to any sitter of whatever rank who lost his turn by unpunctuality or default. After his painting hours he usually entertained a large company at dinner. Samuel Pepys, in his diary, gives some lifelike descriptions of Lely's establishment. On 18 June 1662 he writes: ‘I walked to Lilly, the painter's, where I saw, among other rare things, the Duchesse of York, her whole body, sitting in state in a chair, in white satin, and another of the king's, that is not finished; most rare things. I did give the fellow something that showed us, and promised to come another time, and he would show me Lady Castlemaine's, which I could not then see, it being locked up. Thence to Wright's, the painter's: but, Lord! the difference that is between their two works!’ Again, on 20 Oct. 1662: ‘With Commissioner Pett to Mr. Lilly's, the great painter, who came forth to us; but believing that I came to bespeak a picture, he prevented it by telling us that he should not be at leisure these three weeks, which methinks is a rare thing. And then to see in what pomp his table was laid for himself to go to dinner; and here, among other pictures, saw the so much desired by me picture of my Lady Castlemaine, which is a most blessed picture; and one that I must have a copy of.’ Later on Pepys describes Lely as ‘a mighty proud man’ and ‘full of state.’
Lely is famous for his portraits of the fair and frail beauties of Charles II's court, and though freely criticised for want of taste, his portraits have maintained their popularity to the present time. Pope celebrates ‘the sleepy eye that spoke the melting soul,’ the ‘nightgown fastened by a single pin,’ and other characteristics of Lely's portraits; still, it is the voluptuous and at the same time expressive features and attitudes of Nell Gwynn, Mrs. Middleton, and other beauties, as depicted by Lely, and now at Hampton Court and elsewhere, which have done much to condone in the eyes of posterity the excesses and immoralities of Charles II's court. His famous series of ‘Beauties,’ originally at Windsor Castle, but now at Hampton Court, was executed for the Duchess of York. Every lady in England expected to be painted in the same manner, and there is hardly a family mansion in England which does not possess some portrait bearing Lely's name. His male portraits have been less appreciated than those of his lady sitters, though his best work may be found in some of them. After the naval victory at Solebay in 1665, the Duke of York commissioned Lely to paint portraits of the admirals and commanders in the engagement. Pepys again records on 18 April 1666: ‘To Mr. Lilly, the painter's; and there saw the heads, some finished, and all began, of the flaggmen in the late great fight with the Duke of York against the Dutch. The Duke of York hath them done to hang in his chamber, and very finely they are done indeed;’ and on 18 July the diarist accompanied Vice-admiral Sir W. Penn to the painter's house, but ‘so full of work Lilly is, that he was fain to take his table-book out to see how his time is appointed, and appointed six days hence for him to come between seven and eight in the morning.’ It would be impossible to enumerate the portraits painted by Lely or under his direction. Besides the twenty at Hampton Court, there are numerous examples in the National Portrait Gallery. He sometimes painted subject-pieces, but usually introduced his sitters as a ‘Magdalene’ or some goddess, or groups of children as cupids and bacchanals. At Knole there is a curious painting of nude figures, representing Charles II, as a shepherd, discovering a group of nymphs. Lely might have succeeded had he devoted himself to landscape-painting. Like other fashionable portrait-painters, he kept a number of assistants, among them P. H. Lankrink, J. B. Gaspars, Uylenburg, Roestraten, and others to paint the draperies and accessories in his pictures. His favourite pupils were John Greenhill [q. v.] and Mary Beale [q. v.]; from the notebooks of the latter's husband Vertue copied some interesting details as to Lely's method of painting. Later in life he met with rivals, such as James Huysmans, Henri Gascar, Simon Verelst, John Hayls, and others; but his supremacy remained unshaken until the arrival of Godfrey Kneller, with whom he was brought into immediate rivalry [see under Kneller]. It can hardly be doubted that Lely, who fully appreciated Kneller's merits, was greatly affected by Kneller's rapid success. Lely was knighted by the king at Whitehall on 11 Jan. 1679, and received a grant of arms, ‘Argent on a chevron between three roses gules, leaved and seeded proper, a mullet or.’ In spite of failing health he continued painting to the last. On the morning of 30 Nov. 1680 Sarah, dowager-duchess of Somerset, arrived at his house in Covent Garden for a sitting, and found that the painter had died suddenly that morning. He was buried by torchlight on 7 Dec. in St. Paul's, Covent Garden, where a monument was erected to his memory, containing a bust by Grinling Gibbons and an inscription by Thomas Flatman. Besides his house in Covent Garden Lely also had one at Kew, where he resided during the summer months, and he purchased an estate at Willingham in Lincolnshire. Most of the contemporary writers in prose and verse composed panegyrics on Lely's paintings.
Though Lely amassed a large fortune, he was lavish in expenditure and neglectful of business. He had a magnificent collection of pictures, including several by Vandyck, the catalogue of which was printed by Batho, and a still more remarkable collection of drawings by the old masters, many of which he had acquired at the sale of the Earl of Arundel's collection. In his will, dated 4 Feb. 1679 (printed in full in ‘Wills from Doctors' Commons,’ Camd. Soc.), he appointed Roger North (d. 1734) [q. v.], with whom as with his brothers he was on terms of great intimacy, one of his executors and guardian of his children. His estate in Lincolnshire he left to his children, and after their death to be sold for the benefit of his nephew in Holland. The account-book of his executors is preserved in the British Museum (Addit. MS. 16174). His collection of pictures was sold by auction, after an attempt failed to dispose of them by lottery, to pay his numerous debts and legacies. His prints and drawings were also sold in 1687, the sale occupying forty days, and producing 26,000l. He married a beautiful Englishwoman, whose name has not been ascertained, but who had been his mistress, and borne him two children, a boy and a girl, before the marriage. His children were under age at his death. His daughter, Anne, subsequently married a Mr. Frowd, and died in her first childbed; and the son, John Lely, after being a source of great anxiety to his guardians, was married to a daughter of Sir John Knatchbull, bart. Lely's grandson, John Lely, was also a painter, but of small merit.
Lely frequently painted his own portrait, which shows him to have been a handsome man. A portrait group of himself and his family, with musical instruments, is in the Methuen collection.
There are some fine drawings by Lely in the print room at the British Museum; for one of Edmund Waller see ‘The Hobby Horse,’ January 1892.
[Walpole's Anecdotes of Painting, ed. Wornum; Vertue's MSS. (Brit. Mus. Add. MSS. 23068–76); Woltmann and Woermann's Geschichte der Malerei; Sandrart's Teutsche Akademie; Kramm's Levens en Werken der Hollandsche en Vlaamsche Kunstschilders, &c.; Le Neve's Pedigrees of Knights; J. T. Smith's Streets of London, i. 262; Roger North's Lives of the Norths; Jessopp's Autobiography of Hon. Roger North; Law's Hampton Court, ii. 246; information from (Sir) George Scharf, and Cornelis Hofstede de Groot; authorities quoted in the text.]