In Focus: Two Court Painters

Katherine Toke’s portrait sits in the entrance hall: the best moment to catch her is when the gentle afternoon rays light up her face, but those moments are few and far-between, especially in winter. Katherine’s portrait is attributed to the circle of Sir Peter Lely, one of the most prominent painters of the 17th century. Lely was of Dutch origin, arriving in England in 1643, aged 25. His skill as a portrait artist saw that he was never short of work, despite England being in the midst of a civil war. In 1661, he was appointed Charles II’s ‘Principal Painter in Ordinary’, and his work was highly in demand amongst society ladies.

Lely is well-known for the fact that he would often simply paint the sitter’s head, leaving one of his students to finish off the rest of the painting. Whilst Katherine’s portrait has not been examined in close enough detail to determine whether the same is true of it, it seems unlikely that it would have been entirely by Lely himself. Sally likes to point out that she has rather unflattering fingers – which any painter worth his skill would have taken care to correct. Katherine holds a shell (which often symbolised fertility – in Katherine’s case, she had 11 children) in one hand, with water pouring from a grotesque fountain mouth.

Godinton also possesses a pair of paintings done by Lely’s successor, Sir Godfrey Kneller, who was appointed Principal Painter in Ordinary following Lely’s death in 1680. Like his predecessor, he painted the famous beauties of his day. The portraits we possess are of the Rivers – their connection to the Toke Family, or to Godinton remains unknown but the historical records suggests they might be Sir George Rivers, 4th Baronet Rivers, of Chafford, near Tunbridge Wells – and his wife Dorothy, but this is far from certain. The portraits depict the couple in a flattering light, fitting of their rank. Whilst we might not know much about the Rivers, the fact that they were commissioning Kneller to paint them suggests a certain amount of wealth and status. Precisely why and how they came into our possession remains something of a mystery – but we’re very pleased to have them!