This drawing is a drapery study for one of Peter Lely's most famous arcadian portraits, A Boy as a Shepherd at Dulwich Picture Gallery. Lely was born in Soest, Westphalia, he was trained in Haarlem and came to Britain in about 1643. As a talented and ambitious young artist, it is possible that he arrived in England with the specific intention of succeeding Van Dyck, who had died two years previously, as the king's painter. According to the engraver and antiquarian George Vertue, Lely spent his first few years in England working for the successful portrait painter and picture dealer George Geldorp, pursuing what an early commentator, Bainbrigg Buckeridge, called: ‘the Natural Bent of his Genius, in Landskips and Painted with small Figures, as likewise Historical Compositions.’ Buckeridge continues, stating that Lely soon found: ‘the practice of Face-Painting more encourag'd here’ and therefore ‘turn'd his study that way, wherein, in a short time, he succeeded so well that he surpass'd all his Contemporaries in Europe.’ By the Restoration Lely had achieved a maturity and distinction that marked him out from his contemporaries, combining something of Van Dyck’s grace with his own more robust manner. Following his appointment in 1661 as Principal Painter, and his naturalization in the following year, Lely was recognized as the chief artist in the country.
This large and boldly worked drapery study offers important insight into Lely’s working practices. We know quite a lot about Lely’s studio and his working methods thanks to a number of contemporary accounts. Drawing was central to his production of painted portraits. Lely seems to have made quick chalk sketches to catch a sitter’s likeness at a first sitting. In 1673 the painter William Gandy made observations about Lely’s methods: 'Mr. Lilly did often say to Mr. F. that painting was nothing else but draft - Truly he said the truth for his painting is just like a draft on a russet paper drawn out with lines & the master shadows put in, the lights put in with Chalk. Mr Lilly proceeds just so in his painting, only puts in means & variety of colouring so there's a Picture done.' The evidence suggests that Lely used drawings at every stage of the portraiture process. He probably showed prospective sitters drawings with various poses worked out to help them choose how they wished to be depicted; he made compositional sketches and then made studies as the painting progressed to work out poses, gestures and costume. In the 1670s Lely’s friends the painter Mary Beale and her husband Charles, a patent clerk, art dealer and colourman, commissioned several portraits from him. Charles Beale described Lely making a drawing whilst he was painting a portrait Beale had commissioned of his son, also called Charles, in 1672. Beale noted that after: ‘Mr Lely dead coloured my son Charles picture… he took a drawing upon paper after an Indian gown which he had put on his back, in order to the finishing of the Drapery of it.’
We know the present drawing was made in preparation for a portrait that also belonged to Mary Beale, now at Dulwich Picture Gallery. The sitter was identified by Horace Walpole as the poet Abraham Cowley, however Cowley was too old to be a credible candidate by 1658-60, which was the date ascribed to the picture by Sir Oliver Millar on stylistic grounds. At its most recent exhibition, at the Courtauld Gallery in 2012, curators endorsed Millar's dating and presented scientific analysis that showed that the canvas has a pinkish or greyish ground, painted over chalk, which 'was a technical feature employed by Lely from the late 1650s until the mid 1660s.' For these reasons, Bartholomew Beale, whom Lely painted in the 1670s, can also be ruled out on the grounds that he was too young. Even though the sitter remains unidentified, the portrait clearly belongs to the tradition of arcadian portraits of youth, such as Lely's portrait of Henry Sidney, Earl of Romney. The urge to identify Cowley as the sitter in such a setting demonstrates the influence of the pastoral tradition in both literature and painting.
It is easy to imagine Lely making this chalk drapery sketch before marking up the canvas with chalk, as the 2012 technical analysis of the Dulwich painting confirms he did. At the same time it is worth noting that the painting diverges in small ways from the sketch. The job of the study, therefore, was not to serve as a model to be copied slavishly, but to resolve questions in Lely's mind about the disposition of the drapery, which he perhaps continued to work out in the chalk drawing he applied to the canvas. The drapery study also demonstrates Lely's belief that painting as being 'just like a draft' for he has rendered the shimmering silk economically by simply painting highlights and shadows in the same way as the drawing. The beauty of this drawing as a study of Lely's drawing techniques was apparent to two eighteenth century portrait painters who made famous collections of drawings, Jonathan Richardson senior and Thomas Hudson.
- John Ingamells, Dulwich Picture Gallery: British, London, 2008, pp.176-7.
- Bainbrigg Buckeridge, An Essay Towards an English School of Painters, London, 1706, p.455.
- Bainbrigg Buckeridge, An Essay Towards an English School of Painters, London, 1706, p.456.
- London, British Library, Add Mss 22950, vol. II, p.4.
- Vertue, vol.IV, p.172.
- Ed. Paget Toynbee, 'Horace Walpole's Journals of Visits to Country Seats &c', in Walpole Society, 1927-8, vol 16, p.69; Oliver Millar, Sir Peter Lely, exh. cat. London (National Portrait Gallery), 1978, pp.51-2.
- Ed. Caroline Campbell, Peter Lely: A Lyrical Vision, exh cat. London (Courtauld Gallery), 2012, cat no.12, pp.136-9.