Pepys’ Diary & John Michael Wright

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Previous posts in this blog have looked in some detail at John Evelyn’s diary entries that mention the painter John Michael Wright.  I have been asked why I looked at Evelyn’s diary and not the more famous one by Pepys.  The short answer is that Pepys only makes one fleeting reference to Wright in his diary.  It comes in 1662 on what is an event-filled Wednesday. It is worth quoting in full:

Wednesday 18 June 1662

Up early; and after reading a little in Cicero, I made me ready and to my office, where all the morning very busy. At noon Mr. Creed came to me about business, and he and I walked as far as Lincoln’s Inn Fields together. After a turn or two in the walks we parted, and I to my Lord Crew’s and dined with him; where I hear the courage of Sir H. Vane at his death is talked on every where as a miracle. Thence to Somerset House to Sir J. Winter’s chamber by appointment, and met Mr. Pett, where he and I read over his last contract with the King for the Forest of Dean, whereof I took notes because of this new one that he is now in making. That done he and I walked to Lilly’s, the painter’s, where we saw among other rare things, the Duchess of York, her whole body, sitting instate in a chair, in white sattin, and another of the King, that is not finished; most rare things. I did give the fellow something that showed them us, and promised to come some other 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. Thence to the Temple, and there spoke with my cozen Roger, who gives me little hopes in the business between my Uncle Tom and us. So Mr. Pett (who staid at his son’s chamber) and I by coach to the old Exchange, and there parted, and I home and at the office till night. My windows at my office are made clean to-day and a casement in my closet. So home, and after some merry discourse in the kitchen with my wife and maids as I now-a-days often do, I being well pleased with both my maids, to bed.

This diary entry is a useful example of the range of Pepys’ interests at this time and involves quite a tour of the centre of 17th century London.  He starts with some work in his office in Seething Lane, which lies to the west of Tower Hill, roams from the City to Lincoln’s Inn Fields to Somerset House on to the Strand then to Covent Garden then to Temple, back to the Exchange in the City and finally returns to his office and home in Seething Lane.

Explanations and annotations of the references in this diary entry to Pepys’ work for the Navy Board  and his contacts with various people mentioned here can be found at the invaluable website www.pepysdiary.com.  

In this post  I want to concentrate on the references to art and artists.

“That done he and I walked to Lilly’s, the painter’s…”

Peter Pett (left) from detail of Lely portrait and Samuel Pepys (right)

Peter Pett (left) from detail of Lely portrait and Samuel Pepys (right)

So, we have Mr Pett the shipwright (who had already been painted by Lely) accompanying Pepys to see Lely’s studio which is situated in the piazza in Covent Garden.  It will become clear later in the entry that Pepys and Pett don’t actually meet Lely on this visit, in fact they essentially bribe a caretaker to let them in to see the paintings.  

“…we saw among other rare things, the Duchess of York, her whole body, sitting instate in a chair, in white sattin…”

The first painting Pepys mentions is a portrait of the Duchess of York. This is Anne Hyde (1637 – 1671) who had married James, Duke of York in 1660.  Pepys’ description of this painting, assuming it is accurate, poses some problems since there is no known portrait that fits both the 1662 date and shows Anne sitting in a chair wearing white satin.  Oliver Millar, the great Lely expert,  suggests that the portrait may be the one now in Edinburgh dated as circa 1661.

Anne Hyde, Duchess of York, Peter Lely, Scottish National Portrait Gallery

Anne Hyde, Duchess of York, Peter Lely, Scottish National Portrait Gallery

The obvious problem with this is that, although the date is about right,  the Duchess is neither sitting in state in a chair or dressed in white satin.  It may be that Lely altered the design later, or that Pepys was mistaken in his description (although this is unlikely with a contemporary record) or there is another unknown, possibly lost,  portrait.

I suspect this is the portrait Pepys saw and that the design was changed subsequently by Lely.  The drapery to the left of the Duchess looks unusual and may have been added later to cover a more formal chair.  It is also odd that Pepys doesn’t mention seeing a portrait of James, Duke of York.  There is a portrait of James which is a companion to the Hyde portrait, also  in Edinburgh.  In that portrait the same rather odd drapery design is used in reverse.   It could be that Lely changed the design, removing chairs and altering the drapery colours to make the two portraits more harmonious as a pair.

James, Duke of York, Peter Lely, Scottish National Portrait Gallery

James, Duke of York, Peter Lely, Scottish National Portrait Gallery

“…and another of the King, that is not finished; most rare things.”

Pepys doesn’t give much detail to help identify this portrait.  There are of course several portraits of Charles II by Lely and many copies made by him and his studio. There is no way to tell which of them Pepys saw.

“I did give the fellow something that showed them us, and promised to come some other time, and he would show me Lady Castlemaine’s, which I could not then see, it being locked up!”

This takes us to Lady Castlemaine aka Barbara Villiers (nee Palmer) the King’s mistress and the subject of the Pepys’ lecherous obsession.  After paying off the caretaker that allowed them access Pepys must have been heartbroken at being unable to see the portrait of woman he lusts after in many of his diary entries.  We  again don’t know which of Lely’s several portraits of Barbara Villiers was locked away.  On 20th October he goes again with Pett to see Lely. This time Lely himself is present as is that painting:

“Insomuch that after I had done with the Duke, and thence gone with Commissioner Pett to Mr. Lilly’s, the great painter, who came forth to us; but believing that I come to bespeak a picture, he prevented us 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 that that I must have a copy of.”

Again, Pepys doesn’t give us any clue as to what portrait of Barbara he is talking about.  It could be her portrait as Minerva commissioned by Anne Hyde around this time as part of the “Windsor Beauties” series which is still in the Royal collection.   I suspect however it is likely to be the more sensuous portrait also of 1662 as “the penitent Magdalene”. 

Barbara Villiers as "the penitent Magdalen" Peter Lely, Euston Hall

Barbara Villiers as “the penitent Magdalene” Peter Lely, Euston Hall

Pepys also gets his print, albeit four years later. On 1st December 1666 he says:

“…in the evening, calling at Faythorne’s, buying three of my Lady Castlemayne’s heads, printed this day, which indeed is, as to the head, I think, a very fine picture, and like her.”

On 21st December 1666 (after an appalling piece of sexual exploitation in the morning) he frames his print “which I have made handsome, and is a fine piece.”

William Faithorne, after  Sir Peter Lely, line engraving, 1666

William Faithorne, after Sir Peter Lely, line engraving, 1666

“Thence to Wright’s, the painter’s: but, Lord! the difference that is between their two works.”

Which takes us finally to John Michael Wright and Pepys’ only apparent reference in the diary to the artist.  Pett and Pepys have moved on to visit Wright’s studio which is nearby in the Covent Garden area.  Frustratingly Pepys doesn’t give any details of the visit. He doesn’t even say if he met Wright or describe any of the paintings he saw.   It is worth noting that he doesn’t make any actual criticism of Wright’s work but merely points out the difference between it and Lely’s; although it is clear which artist he prefers.

It is not surprising that Pepys, whose taste in art is perhaps driven more by a salacious interest, prefers the more sensuous approach of Lely.  It is also worth noting that Wright and Lely painted the same subjects on several occasions, often at around the same time. We can therefore make our own comparisons of “the difference that is between their two works.”

Barbare Villiers by Lely (left) and Wright (right)

Barbara Villiers by Lely (left) and Wright (right)

 

Charles II by Lely (left) and Wright (right)

Charles II by Lely (left) and Wright (right)

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One Response to Pepys’ Diary & John Michael Wright

  1. Neil Stevenson says:

    I have by accident just come across another reference to Pepys and the print (after Lely) he buys of Lady Castlemaine. On Wednesday, 7 November 1666 Pepys visits the printer Faythorne:

    “…called at Faythorne’s, to buy some prints for my wife to draw by this winter, and here did see my Lady Castlemayne’s picture, done by him from Lilly’s, in red chalke and other colours, by which he hath cut it in copper to be printed. The picture in chalke is the finest thing I ever saw in my life, I think; and did desire to buy it; but he says he must keep it awhile to correct his copper-plate by, and when that is done he will sell it me.”

    As noted in the blog post Pepys does get to buy the print in December 1666 but as far as I can tell Faythorne never sells him the chalk drawing.

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