Once upon a time, before every last second of every other person’s life was documented by way of a digital camera or cell-phone (at least every other person beneath a Certain Age), images were special. Before photography and daguerreotypes became widespread in the early 19th century, the overwhelming majority of people lived their entire lives without any sort of visual documentation. No photo-smiles, retouching, good sides or bad. One’s image was based entirely on the here and now, or memory.
Portraits belonged to the rich, the famous, and the infamous. Portraits were expensive, and the formal ones could take months, even years, to complete. Portraits celebrated beauty, rank, wealth, achievement, nobility, or notoriety, and did so for all posterity. Portraits could be viewed and venerated as stand-ins for the actual person, whether the king in a distant colonial outpost or a deceased dowager duchess respectfully added to the other ancestors in the family gallery.
Portraits also grace the covers of my historical novels. I’ve been phenomenally fortunate in my covers, which have each featured an actual portrait of my heroine. In the past, I’ve blogged about the portraits on the covers of Duchess and Royal Harlot, so it seems only fair that I write as well about the portrait of Nell Gwyn on the cover of my current novel, The King’s Favorite.
Those two earlier heroines –– Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, and Barbara, Duchess of Cleveland –– were both seventeenth century Ladies with a capital L, and as such they had their choice of the very best and most fashionable artists. They were painted grandly, lushly, extravagantly, with the trappings of their titles and wealth around them. (That's Sarah with her family to the right, and even the younger son is looking flawlessly aristocratic.)
Nell Gwyn was different. Nell was Common. True, she was a celebrity in an era that was just beginning to realize the concept, an immensely popular actress before she became a royal mistress. With her curly auburn hair, she wasn’t considered classically beautiful so much as charmingly pretty (what we’d now call “cute”), and her diminutive size (best modern guesses peg her at about 4’10”) made her an unlikely model for a goddess. She was gleefully unapologetic of her humble beginnings, and only affected grand airs to twit her betters.
But like many people who rise from poverty, Nell was acutely aware of the symbols of success. Although she could scarcely write her name, she made sure that all the silverware (and even many of the window panes) in her townhouse carried her monogram. Nell understood the importance of portraits. She wanted her beauty and success to be honored and preserved for future generations, but more importantly she wanted the notoriously unfaithful Charles to remember her now.
Nell sat for her portrait numerous times during her short life. She didn’t always have the most skilled painters (see the awkward effort to the right by Simon Verelst), and because of her background, she was often shown with one or both breasts bared. Her tiny stature makes her near-nude pose as Venus for Sir Peter Lely seem a little odd to modern eyes (and that's not to mention that weird vertical-futon-thingee she's lounging against), but Charles loved the picture so well that Nell had a copy of it painted for him to hang in his private quarters in the palace. The artists loved painting her as well; because of her great popularity, they could count on selling prints engraved after the original portrait.
The portrait of Nell by Sir Peter Lely on the cover of The King’s Favorite was painted and copied several times, too, and it’s unlikely that this version was the original. My cover is even further removed. For design purposes, my publisher asked for permission from the owners to reverse the painting, and to change the color of the gown from yellow to a more eye-catching red.
There’s another reason for the color change, too, the kind of weird coincidence that delights art historians. If you look back at the cover of Royal Harlot, you’ll see that Barbara is wearing the same yellow gown/blue cloak combination. And I mean the SAME gown and cloak. Because 17th century artists kept “costumes” (long swaths of rich fabric that could be pinned and clasped into a variety of vaguely classical styles) for posing in their studios, it’s very likely that both women are wearing the exact same length of yellow cloth pulled from Sir Peter’s wardrobe –– and I also imagine that Nell might have done so intentionally to irritate Barbara.
But in this painting meant as a gift for Charles, only Nell would have chosen to be painted in such a rural setting. She was Charles’s country mistress, his favorite companion on escapes from the London Court to Windsor Castle. She taught him to fish, and he tried to teach her to ride, and together they swam in the river and strolled through the fields and forests, and it’s likely she wished to remind the king of these balmy, happy days in her company. Her throat and ears bare of jewels and her hair carelessly tousled, she drapes a wreath of wildflowers around the neck of an adoring lamb who may (or may not) represent a besotted, tamed Charles himself.
What did Charles think? Ahh, for that you’ll just have to read The King’s Favorite, and find out for yourself.
If you were sitting for your portrait, how would you wish to be portrayed: as a Greek goddess, a Regency lady, or a movie star at Cannes, a prowling tigress, a star-spangled alien, or something else altogether? Or do you have another question or comment about Nell herself? I’ll give away a signed copy of The King’s Favorite on Sunday night to a reader who posts before then.