Old Master Paintings, Drawings, and British Portraits


SIR PETER LELY (Soest 1618 – London 1680)

Portrait of Elizabeth Capel Countess of Carnarvon (1633 – 1678), Circa 1662

Inscribed covntess of canarvan on the stone wall to the right of the sitter

oil on canvas

50 x 39 inches             (127 x 101 cm.)


Lord Hyde

Bank of America Art Collection



Maria Peitcheva, Peter Lely, Lexington, Kentucky, 2016, pp. 17-18, illustrated.


This rediscovered portrait exemplifies the sophisticated assurance of Lely’s mature style in the years around the Restoration, when he was pre-eminently England’s most fashionable painter, secure as the heir to Sir Anthony van Dyck’s reputation and position, and in the patronage of a courtly circle whose world he defines. Equally, although Lely could produce quite breathtakingly inventive work until his death, this period is free from the sense of repetition and thematic exhaustion which were the inevitable consequence of a studio-factory serving a vast clientele from the 1670s.

This portrait can be dated on stylistic grounds and hairstyle to c.1662, comparable with Elizabeth Butler Countess of Chesterfield (Chevening) and with Anne Hyde Duchess of York (Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh). The contemporary inscription identifying the sitter is identical in form to that on the Edinburgh painting and would have been applied in the studio. The Vandyckian tone of Lely’s work in the previous decade has now become more extravagantly Baroque, in comparison with the portrait of the present sitter with her sister Mary Duchess of Beaufort (1630 – 1715) painted c.1658 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Yet despite the tumbling drama of the curtain, like the great swags that frame the Duchess of York there is still the same direct, unpretentious treatment of character. There is also, of course, the same virtuosity of handling. The briskly painted draperies and the execution of the hands are notably outstanding, especially the modelling of the open palm against which Lady Carnarvon is resting her head, and the languor conveyed in her loose grip upon the leaves of ivy that she is holding at her lap.

The ivy provides the key to the mood of the painting. The sitter has retired from the world, expressed not only in her glance directed away from the viewer but by the curtain which shuts away all but a slight part of the prospect beyond the stone embrasure in which she is sitting. The portrait is contemporary with Lely’s iconic full-length portrait of the King’s mistress Barbara Villiers (Knole, Kent) with her head on her hand - a pose derived from paintings of the Penitent Magdalen (for example Guido Reni’s 1633 painting in the Museo Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome) - but although the Knole portrait spurred a fashion for the pose among Lely’s female sitters – a portrait of Lady Carnarvon employs it c.1663 (Sotheby’s, London, July 13, 1988, lot 26) - it is unlikely given its sensual overtones that this is the inspiration for the present painting. It is instead an attitude of melancholy, seen in earlier male portraiture [1] and represented in Albrecht Durer’s engraving Melencolia. Ivy is traditionally associated with immortality, since it is an evergreen, and, because of the way it binds, with marital fidelity. Yet this is not a mourning portrait since with the exception of two sons yet unborn all of Lady Carnarvon’s immediate family were living at this date. Lady Carnarvon’s father Arthur 1st Lord Capel of Hadham (1604 – 1649) had been beheaded by Parliament for his part in the Second Civil War, and it possible that he is the subject of her reverie, especially as she is enjoying the fruits of Restoration which he did not live to see. Lord Capel wrote a book of Daily Observations and Meditations, Divine, Morall, published posthumously in 1654. Lady Carnarvon’s apparent melancholy might be rather a moment’s reflection to remember her father and to continue in the habits which he surely taught her. Nevertheless the world beckons, and the spray of oak leaves appearing to the right has intruded over the sill within inches of touching her elbow almost consolingly. Oak branches appear frequently as part of the background foliage in Lely’s paintings, but here it may be an explicit allusion to King Charles II and thus to the Restoration, the conclusion to the sufferings of Lady Carnarvon’s family.

The suggestion of a woman’s intellectual life is exceedingly rare in Lely’s portraiture, or in the work of any artist of this period, since society itself scarcely acknowledged such a thing. Yet this is far from a fanciful interpretation, and entirely in tune with what one knows of the Capel family. In the earlier double portrait showing Lady Carnarvon with her sister the painter has taken pains to show her holding not an emblematic plant but a signed example of one of her own flower paintings, of which she was justly proud. [2]  The family shared a love of plants and gardening: the famous group portrait The Capel Family (National Portrait Gallery, London) is dominated by a view of the family’s formal garden at Little Hadham; Mary Duchess of Beaufort went on to create a much-celebrated garden at Badminton, and Sir Henry Capel 3rd Lord Capel (1638 – 1696) her brother began the Royal Botanical Gardens which still flourish at Kew.

Elizabeth Capel married Charles Dormer 2nd Earl of Carnarvon (1632 – 1709) in or before 1653. Lord Carnarvon was the son of Robert 1st Earl of Carnarvon (d.1643) a prominent Royalist general who had been killed at the battle of Newbury. He was also the grandson of Philip Herbert 4th Earl of Pembroke , one of the ‘noble defectors’ who sided with Parliament, and like the 1st Earl of Carnarvon a great patron of Van Dyck. The Dormer and Herbert families also patronised the miniaturist and copyist Richard Gibson (1615 – 1690), the dwarf painter whose miniatures of Lord and Lady Carnarvon offer a delicate counterpoint to Lely’s oil portraits, and it was probably whilst working alongside each other for these patrons that the two painters became friends and associates.

Lely’s work for the family, in itself a vital document of the way in which the aristocracy normalised relationships within itself in the wake of the Civil War, includes some of his most magnificent work. In the same year that Elizabeth Capel married, her brother Arthur 2nd Lord Capel, later created Earl of Essex (c.1632 – 1683) married Lady Elizabeth Percy, daughter of the Earl of Northumberland, another ‘noble defector’ for whom Lely had painted two portrait groups of the captive Royal family in 1647 (Northumberland Collection, Syon and National Trust, Petworth). The double portrait of Lord and Lady Essex c.1655 (National Portrait Gallery, London), the portrait of the Countess of Carnarvon and the Duchess of Beaufort c.1658 and the group portrait of The Family of the 2nd Earl of Carnarvon c.1659-1660 (Christie’s, London, July 8, 2008, lot 19) are not only a tour de force of painting but proof that even before the Restoration the principal aristocratic families had already regained much of their former authority and social presence. When viewing the Capel portraits at the Essex seat at Cassiobury- which included The Duchess of Beaufort and her sister the Countess of Carnarvon and Sir Henry Capel (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) - George Vertue said that they were: 

of the best and highest perfection that I ever saw painted by Sr. P. Lelly especially so many & so compleat together.- not excepting the Beauties at Windsor which I have seen more than once[3]

Elizabeth Capel’s portraits remain distinct, however, because they are so strongly marked with a sense of her own character. This may be muted in The Family of the 2nd Earl of Carnarvon where she is one element in a dynastic whole, but in her single portraits [4] and that with her sister she is a distinct and engaging personality, captured with an immediacy more frequently seen in portraits of the painter’s friends and fellow artists, and there is a sense common to them all that Lely found Elizabeth Capel to be one of his most interesting and rewarding sitters. Lady Carnarvon predeceased her husband in 1678. Of her five children two sons died infants and the heir Charles Viscount Alscott died a minor before 1673. Her daughters survived, happily, and Elizabeth married Philip Stanhope 2nd Earl of Chesterfield, becoming grandmother to the famous Philip Dormer Stanhope Lord Chesterfield, and Isabella married Charles Coote 3rd Earl of Mountrath, and examples of Lely’s Capels portraits have descended to the present in both families.

This remarkable family not only helped Lely immeasurably by providing him with consistent patronage through and beyond the 1650s when he was establishing his practice, but by giving him precious access to the paintings by Van Dyck in their houses. At a time when the Royal Collections had been dispersed by auction this was undoubtedly the formative artistic experience of his career and enabled his transformation from a Dutch painter newly-arrived from the Hague into the artist whose Baroque style would become a touchstone of British portraiture. Furthermore the broad political base of this circle enabled him to operate favourably under the Interregnum regime – one of his best known commissions of the period is a portrait of Cromwell (Birmingham City Museums and Galleries) - and through his friendship with Elizabeth Capel’s brother Henry the close acquaintance of active Royalists left him well-placed at the Restoration.



[1] Julia Marciari Alexander, in Painted Ladies Women at the Court of Charles II, National Portrait Gallery, London, p.120.

[2] A painting by Elizabeth Capel in the Royal Collection was exhibited in Escape to Eden:  Five Centuries of Women and Gardens, National Portrait Gallery, London, 2000-2001.

[3]  Vertue, “Notebooks IV”, in Walpole Society, vol. XXIV, 1935-1936, p.17.

[4] An unpublished head and shoulders portrait of Elizabeth Capel, c.1658 (Private Collection, Edinburgh) which appears to relate to the double portrait in the Metropolitan Museum of Art is an exceptionally direct likeness and says much about Lely’s friendship with the sitter.

Lawrence Steigrad Fine Arts

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