04 / 2022

The captivating portrait of Charles II

Clemmie de la Poer Beresford explains how the 17th century masterpiece of Charles II became part of the precious portrait collection at Parham House.

The captivating 17th century portrait of Charles II.

On the 16th July 1952, a particularly fine portrait went under the hammer at Sotheby’s in London. The painting was sought after; even Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother was interested. At Parham in Sussex, Clive and Alicia Pearson put an asterisk beside its catalogue entry and instructed the fine art dealers Gooden & Fox to bid on their behalf. Eleven o’clock came on the morning of the sale and the Pearsons held their breath. Would they be taking home Simon Verelst’s masterpiece of King Charles II?

            Anyone who visits Parham today will know the answer. The portrait hangs splendidly in a room lined with other seventeenth century masterpieces, including a work by Sir Peter Lely. With Louise de Keroualle opposite him, Charles is in good company, although Catherine of Braganza, Charles’ wife and queen consort whose depiction also hangs in the room might disagree. Poor Catherine had to endure Louise and six other royal mistresses, who bore the King a total of fourteen illegitimate children. In her artistic afterlife it is no different and the irony is palpable to all who enter the room.

            Why the Pearsons were taken with the portrait is not difficult to understand. Charles stands with remarkable swagger, positioning himself elegantly in contrapposto, with his body weight distributed easily upon his right leg. With his right hand lazily placed on his hip and his left hand effortlessly held out to clasp his draped cloak, the King takes up a stance of remarkable self-assurance and aplomb. As if daring comment, Charles’ eyes meet the viewer’s, looking out from underneath bushy dark eyebrows and large accentuated crescent shaped lids. The darkness of his pupils matches his long black curled locks and the inky background which he materialises out of. His full mouth curves flamboyantly, forming neither a smile nor a grimace.

            Adding a sense of theatricality to the work are the King’s robes, which drape over him, folding at fantastically exaggerated angles. A grey velvet cloak trimmed with lace on one sleeve falls plentifully over a crimson velvet surcoat, its colour picking out the rouge of his rosy cheeks. Underneath, Charles dons a white shirt, its sleeves expansive and full, and on his lower half he wears petticoat breeches festooned and frilled with bunches of ribbon. On top of his robe, hanging from a beautiful chain adorned with Tudor roses is his St George, depicting St George on his noble steed and symbolising the King’s position as head of the chivalric Order of the Garter.

            The portrait is so captivating that it is little wonder the under bidder on the 16th July 1952 was Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother. Her Majesty had thought it would sit well in The Royal Collection, especially as paintings of Charles II were lacking in the Collection at that time. When the Pearsons discovered this soon afterwards, Clive was dismayed and set about corresponding with Sir Arthur Penn, a member of The Queen Mother’s Royal Household in order to relinquish the painting to the Palace. Although Her Majesty expressed her sincere gratitude to Clive for his willingness to part with the treasure, she was reluctant to take advantage of his kind suggestion. The Queen Mother recognised that if the painting remained at Parham it would be seen by a greater number of the public. Verelst’s Charles II, then, would remain at Parham. The Queen Mother hoped she might be able to visit Parham one day to see it. Although her royal duties meant she was unable to fulfil her wish, thousands of others visiting Parham in Sussex have delighted in it in the years since it went under the hammer!

This article was written by Clemmie de la Poer Beresford, Cultural Historian and Writer, and ‘@_the_history_gal‘ on Instagram.