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Nell Gwyn

3 of 30 portraits of Nell Gwyn

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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Nell Gwyn

by Simon Verelst
oil on canvas, feigned oval, circa 1680
29 in. x 24 7/8 in. (737 mm x 632 mm)
Bequeathed by John Neale, 1931
Primary Collection
NPG 2496

Sitterback to top

  • Eleanor ('Nell') Gwyn (1651?-1687), Actress; mistress of Charles II. Sitter associated with 30 portraits.

Artistback to top

  • Simon Verelst (circa 1644-circa 1710), Artist. Artist or producer associated with 7 portraits.

This portraitback to top

Pepys wrote in his diary, 'Up, it being a fine day: and after doing a little business in my chamber, I left my wife to go abroad... and saw pretty Nelly standing at her lodgings door in Drury-lane in her smock-sleeves and bodice.' May 1st 1667.

Linked publicationsback to top

  • 100 Portraits, p. 36
  • 100 Pioneering Women, p. 30 Read entry

    On 1 May 1667, diarist Samuel Pepys wrote, ‘Up, it being a fine day: and after doing a little business in my chamber, I left my wife to go abroad ... and saw pretty Nelly standing at her lodgings door in Drury-lane in her smock-sleeves and bodice.’ Pretty Nelly was Eleanor ‘Nell’ Gwyn (1651?-87), one of the first actresses on the public stage. She was also Charles II’s self-proclaimed ‘Protestant whore’, the best-known royal mistress in English history. Most likely born in London, Gwyn grew up in its slums in the shadow of civil war. She never knew her father. Her mother, who drank to excess, died by drowning. Gwyn, however, eternally irreverent and an inveterate optimist, embodied the Restoration spirit. After living hand-to-mouth, selling oranges and shucking oysters, she established herself as a comic actress in London’s Drury Lane. It was a role that she enacted, too, in the Carolean court, her wits as much as her looks ensuring her favour there.

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  • Cannadine, Sir David (Introduction); Cooper, Tarnya; Stewart, Louise; MacGibbon, Rab; Cox, Paul; Peltz, Lucy; Moorhouse, Paul; Broadley, Rosie; Jascot-Gill, Sabina, Tudors to Windsors: British Royal Portraits, 2018 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas, USA, 7 October 2018 -3 February 2019. Bendigo Art Gallery, Australia, 16 March - 14 July 2019.), p. 117 Read entry

    Nell Gwyn was the most famous and popular of Charles II's many mistresses. A very successful actress, and one of the first women to perform in public, she is shown here wearing just her shift, or underwear. Actresses were not expected to conform to the usual behavioural norms; Nell allowed the diarist Samuel Pepys (and presumably others) to watch her dressing for her roles.

  • Gibson, Robin, Treasures from the National Portrait Gallery, 1996, p. 47
  • Macleod, Catharine; Alexander, Julia Marciari, Painted Ladies: Women at the Court of Charles II, 2001 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 11 October 2001 to 6 January 2002), p. 170
  • Perry, Gill (introduction) Roach, Joseph (appreciation) and West, Shearer (appreciation), The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons, 2011 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 20 October 2011 to 8 January 2012), p. 34
  • Piper, David, Catalogue of Seventeenth Century Portraits in the National Portrait Gallery, 1625-1714, 1963, p. 149
  • Ribeiro, Aileen, The Gallery of Fashion, 2000, p. 85
  • Ribeiro, Aileen; Blackman, Cally, A Portrait of Fashion: Six Centuries of Dress at the National Portrait Gallery, 2015, p. 103
  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 269
  • Various contributors, National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain, 2014, p. 92 Read entry

    Perhaps the most famous name of the Restoration court, Nell Gwyn was also one of the first women to act on the public stage. Apparently working first as an orange-seller outside the theatre, she began acting in the mid-1660s and was much admired for her comic roles. She caught the attention of the diarist Samuel Pepys, who described her as ‘pretty witty Nell’, but, more importantly, she was introduced to Charles II and became his mistress. She had two sons by him: Charles, later Duke of St Albans, and James. The King bought her a house in Pall Mall, paid her a pension and is said to have remembered her on his deathbed with the words ‘Let not poor Nelly starve’.

    Simon Verelst (c.1644–c.1710) was a Dutch artist who arrived in England as a specialist flower painter but appears to have soon turned to portraiture. He painted most of the prominent figures at court at least once, using distinctive strong lighting contrasts, rather simplified modelling and bold colours. His theatrical style perhaps particularly suited Nell Gwyn, whose portrait he painted on a number of occasions and in different poses.

  • Williamson, David, Kings and Queens, 2010, p. 116
  • Williamson, David, The National Portrait Gallery: History of the Kings and Queens of England, 1998, p. 118

Linked displays and exhibitionsback to top

Events of 1680back to top

Current affairs

William Howard, Viscount Stafford, is convicted of impeachment and beheaded on account of his alleged involvement in the Popish Plot.
Whigs' sponsorship of a pope-burning procession, for the second consecutive year, supports their campaign to exclude James, Duke of York from the throne.

Art and science

Writer, John Bunyan, publishes, The Life and Death of Mr. Badman. Novelistic in form and conceived as a dialogue between two gentlemen, the book was intended as a sequel to the first part of The Pilgrim's Progress.


Revelations surface of a Catholic uprising in Ireland with French support. The government launches an inquiry, ultimately leading to the execution of Oliver Plunket, Archbishop of Armagh.
Secretary of State, Robert Spencer, in adopting an anti-French foreign policy, forges a defensive Anglo-Spanish treaty while seeking an alliance with the Dutch.

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