4. Charles Beauclerk (1670–1726), Duke of St. Albans

Charles Beauclerk (1670–1726), Duke of St. Albans. Photo from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in public domain.

This is the kind of portrait that most people just glance at as they look for portraits of more famous people or by more famous painters. Who is the sitter, Charles Beauclerk, Duke of St. Albans (etc.), or the artist, Godfrey Kneller?

This portrait is actually of a royal bastard. Beauclerk was the son of King Charles II and his most popular mistress, the actress/celeb Nell Gwynn. Beauclerk himself is otherwise not too interesting, although his portrait presents interesting evidence for a shift in views of gender between the 17th century and today: to our eye, the subject’s haughty stance looks queeny, and his delicate skin and primped hair look effeminate — while to 17th century eyes, this was an aristocratic rake, ready perhaps to run you through with his rapier. But there is much more to say about his mother. Probably the most fun story about her is that once, when caught in an anti-Catholic riot—because the mob had mistaken her carriage for that of another royal mistress, who was a Catholic — she leant out of her carriage and said “pray, good people, be civil: I am the Protestant whore!” In any case, this painting is also a good reminder that there are scandalous backstories behind many works in the museum, even apparently respectable British portraits.