Catherine Sedley, Countess of Dorchester by Studio of Sir Peter Lely (NPG 36)

Catherine Sedley, Countess of Dorchester
studio of Sir Peter Lely
based on a work of circa 1675
NPG 36

This portrait was bought in May 1858 from the art dealer Henry Graves for 75 guineas. At that time, the portrait was believed to represent the most famous woman of the Restoration period, the actress and mistress to King Charles II, Nell Gwyn (1651?–1687). It was the thirty-sixth portrait to enter the collection and the third portrait of a female sitter.  Paintings of court ‘beauties’ by Sir Peter Lely and his contemporaries were a regular feature of the Gallery’s early acquisitions. The picture was displayed as Nell Gwyn from the opening of the Gallery to the public in 1859 until the Second World War.

The portrait lost its identification as Nell Gwyn in 1947 when a close correspondence was noticed between the oil portrait and a print named on the plate as ‘Madame Katherine Sidley’. This mezzotint was published by Sir Peter Lely’s friend and business associate Richard Tompson in 1678-9. The emergence of this contemporary print led to the reidentification of the oil portrait as another mistress, this time to King James II, Catharine Sedley, Countess of Dorchester (1657–1717).

It is one of over 100 portraits in the collection that were acquired on the understanding that they represented a significant figure from British history only for that identity to later be questioned, debated and eventually dropped. This is relatively rare instance of an alternative identification being found. In most cases, the true identity of the sitter remains a mystery.

The exact identification of portraits from this period is complicated by the frequent repetition of poses, costumes and accessories employed by artists and the close resemblance of sitters who were often painted with similar, fashionable features. 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.

Nell Gwyn
by Simon Verelst
circa 1680
NPG 2496

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 is today the Gallery’s most securely identified portrait of Nell Gwyn. 


A third portrait was bought for £400 in 1956. It was displayed as the Gallery’s only legitimate portrait of Nell Gwyn until the 1990s when doubts about the security of the identification led to the addition of ‘possibly’ to the title. In the twenty-first century, 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.

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