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Catherine Sedley, Countess of Dorchester

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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Catherine Sedley, Countess of Dorchester

studio of Sir Peter Lely
oil on canvas, based on a work of circa 1675
49 1/2 in. x 39 1/2 in. (1257 mm x 1003 mm)
Purchased, 1858
Primary Collection
NPG 36

Sitterback to top

Artistback to top

  • Sir Peter Lely (1618-1680), Portrait painter. Artist associated with 843 portraits, Sitter in 19 portraits.

This portraitback to top

When this portrait was bought in May 1858 from the art dealer Henry Graves, it was believed to represent the most famous woman of the Restoration period, the actress and mistress to King Charles II, Nell Gwyn (1651?–1687). However, in 1947 a print from the same period identified as ‘Madame Katherine Sidley’ was observed to be very similar to the painting. This convinced the Gallery to re-identify the oil portrait as that of Catharine Sedley, Countess of Dorchester (1657–1717), mistress to King James II.
This is one of over a hundred portraits in the Gallery’s collection whose sitter identification has been queried, debated and then dropped. However, it is a rare case in which an alternative identification was made, as most of these portraits have remained unnamed. For the period in which the portrait of Sedley was made, the exact identification of sitters is complicated by the frequent repetition of poses, costumes and accessories, as well as the generalisation of facial features, which turned portraits of individual sitters into fashionable likenesses. Over the years, hundreds of portraits have been called ‘Nell Gwyn’ but, either through error or deceit, the identification of the vast majority of these portraits is incorrect.
The Gallery has grappled with the challenge presented by Nell Gwyn’s iconography on further occasions. In 1931 the Trustees accepted the bequest of a portrait called ‘Nell Gwyn’ despite their belief that the identification was incorrect. It was only accepted on the basis that ‘it would be of interest to students as a signed example of the work of Simon Verelst’. It remained an ‘unknown sitter’ until 1987, when the previously doubted identification was accepted by curators, and it is today the Gallery’s most securely identified portrait of Nell Gwyn.
A third portrait was acquired for £400 in 1956. It was displayed as the Gallery’s only legitimate portrait of Nell Gwyn until the 1990s when doubts about the identification led to the addition of ‘possibly’ to the title. More recently, curators decided that there was insufficient evidence to associate the picture with Nell Gwyn, and the portrait is currently called ‘unknown woman, formerly known as Nell Gwyn’. Future research may solve the mystery of the sitter’s identity.

Related worksback to top

  • NPG D18790: Catherine Sedley, Countess of Dorchester (after)

Linked publicationsback to top

  • Foskett, Daphne, Samuel Cooper, 1974 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 15 March - 15 June 1974), p. 128
  • Ingamells, John, Later Stuart Portraits 1685-1714, 2009, p. 73
  • Piper, David, Catalogue of Seventeenth Century Portraits in the National Portrait Gallery, 1625-1714, 1963, p. 110
  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 183

Events of 1675back to top

Current affairs

James Scott, Duke of Monmouth oversees the suppression of the London weavers' riots which break out in the East End against the introduction of mechanised silk looms.
The great fire of Northampton quickly destroys the city. Charles II donates timber for its reconstruction.

Art and science

Charles II founds the Royal Observatory in Greenwich and appoints John Flamsteed the first Astronomer Royal.
Royal approval is given to the 'Warrant' design, Sir Christopher Wren's design for the rebuilding of St. Paul's Cathedral devastated by the Great Fire (1666).

International

A naval campaign into the Mediterranean under the command of Sir John Narbrough, with protégé, Cloudesley Shovell as lieutenant, blockades the port of Tripoli and successfully halts persistent attacks on English merchant ships by North African pirates. A peace treaty is signed with Tripoli in 1676.

Tell us more back to top

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