Peter Lely, arrived in London in around 1641, which was marked by the death of Anthony van Dyck in December. His early English paintings, mainly mythological or religious scenes, or portraits set in a pastoral landscape, show influences from Anthony van Dyck and the Dutch baroque. Lely’s portraits were well received, and he succeeded Anthony van Dyck as the most fashionable portrait artist in England. He became a freeman of the Painter-Stainers Company in 1647 and was portrait artist to Charles I. His talent ensured that his career was not interrupted by Charles’s execution, and he served Oliver Cromwell, whom he painted “warts and all”.
After the English Restoration in 1660, Lely was appointed as Charles II’s Principal Painter in Ordinary in 1661, with a stipend of £200 per year, as Van Dyck had enjoyed in the previous Stuart reign. Lely became a naturalised English subject in 1662. The young Robert Hooke came to London to follow an apprenticeship with Lely.
Demand was high, and Lely and his large workshop were prolific. After Lely painted a sitter’s head, Lely’s pupils would often complete the portrait in one of a series of numbered poses. As a result, Lely is the first English painter who has left “an enormous mass of work”, although the quality of studio pieces is variable.
His most famous non-portrait work is probably Nymphs by a fountain, Lely played a significant role in introducing the mezzotint to Britain, as he realized its possibilities for publicising his portraits. He encouraged Dutch mezzotinters to come to Britain to copy his work, laying the foundations for the English mezzotint tradition.
Lely was knighted in 1680. He died soon afterwards at his easel in Covent Garden, while painting a portrait of the Duchess of Somerset, and was buried at St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden.