Sir Peter Lely 1618-1680
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Sir Peter Lely 1618-1680

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Three quarter length portrait of Sibyl Masters sitting on a ledge, a wooded evening landscape beyond. She wears a green silk dress with brown wrap, and a string of pearls.


Oil painting on canvas: 49 1/2 x 40 in (126 x 102 cm) and contained in a fine 17th century carved and gilded frame

Provenance: by descent from the sitter to G. Wyrley-Birch of Wretham Norvalspont, Cape Province, South Africa by whom sold to the father of the last owner.


Painted c.1648-51


The sitter was the daughter of Christopher Masters of the City of Westminster, She married Humphrey Wyrley, Prothonotary of the Court of Common Pleas and a Justice of the Peace for Staffordshire. She was born in or about 1624 and married in 1645/6. She died in or about 1687; her husband died two years later, having added a substantial fortune from the law in London to a patrimony of land-owning in the Midlands. Both Masters and Wyrleys were typical Elizabethan “New Men” seeking a fortune in the Metropolis: neither family was noted in the 1568 Heralds’ Visitation of London which noted all the prosperous men of land or commerce, but a generation or two later they were holding middle-ranking official posts. The Wyrleys were, though, an old-established county family in Staffordshire where they had estates at Hamstead (or Hampstead) in Handsworth..
In1228, William de Wirleia was Rector of the church of Hunnesworth, and so continued until his death nineteen years later. This is the earliest record of a Wyrley, so named resident in Handsworth. Robert, the earliest named ancestor, lived in the reign of Henry III, followed by William, who served on a Inquisition with Thomas de Hamstead in 1276. In 1279, he sued Richard, son of Henry of Perry for two-thirds of the manor of Perry, and four years later this was conceded to him. The family lived the lives of prosperous gentry throughout the Middle Ages, gradually adding to their holdings of land
An impression of the status of the Wyrley family and the extent of their estates in Elizabethan times can be gained from a marriage settlement made in 1592 between John Wyrley of "Hampsted" and Edward Holte of Duddeston in confirmation of marriage between Humphrey Wyreley, heir apparent of John, and Katerin Holte, daughter of Edward. (The original document is in Birmingham Reference Library).
Edward Holte was to pay 700 marks and "diverse goods" to John Wyrley who, in return, covenanted to settle part of his estate on his son. This was to include "that capital messuage and farm of Holford called Holford House and all lands and tenements adjoining same", as well as the hammer mill in Holford with waters, streams and pools belonging to it and pastures and meadows in Perry Barr. Humphrey was in addition to have rights to half the corn mill called Perry Mill with its dams, steams, etc. John Wyrley retained for his own use the fishing rights in the waters of both mills. Settlement was made on Humphrey of lands and pastures in Great Barr and Wednesbury after the death of Dorothy, widowed mother of John Wyrley, who held these for her lifetime. Finally, the inheritance after the death of John Wyrley himself was legalised. This included long lists of named meadows and woods, "Hampsteed Mylles", the blade mill and "the capital house of Hampsteed called Wyrley's Hall with all barns, stables, houses, gardens, orchards, hop-yards, courts, fold yards and backside to the same belonging". Provision was made for Goodith, John's wife, if she outlived him, and very involved arrangements made to cover the eventualities of either of the young couple dying before the age of 22 or before producing a male heir. If Humphrey died before reaching 22 and without a male heir, any daughters were to share between them £233.6s8d but if Katerin were to die, her father Edward Holte, was to be paid £233.6s8d at "his new dwelling house at Duddeston". The Holte family were themselves prosperous landowners who in the early years of Charles I’s reign built the great mansion of Aston Hall, now part of Birmingham Museum and Art Galleries.
The ownership of our painting followed the descent of the family: in 1680, Sir John Wyrley bought the manor of Handsworth from Richard Best and rebuilt the first manor house. Sir John was followed by his nephew, Humphrey Wyrley. His daughter, Sybil, named after the sitter in our portrait, married Dr. Peter Birch. They had two sons, Humphrey and John, who both adopted the name Wyrley-Birch and who both died childless. The estate eventually passed by will to a distant relative, George Birch of Harborne. In 1776, he married Ann Lane, grand-daughter of Mary Wyrley, and he became the last lord of the manor. In 1819, the greater part of the estate was sold to William, Earl of Dartmouth of Sandwell Hall, West Bromwich.

Sir Peter Lely was born on 14th September 1618 in the garrison town of Soest in Westphalia to Dutch parents, whose real name was van der Faes. His mother, Abigail (nee van Vliet) came from a prominent Utrecht family, and his father, Johan van der Faes, was a captain in the infantry regiment of Baron Walraven van Gent, in the service of the Elector of Brandenburg. Peter’s father was born in a house in The Hague, bought by the great-grandfather of the artist in 1525, which had a lily on the façade and was called In de Lelye: hence the artist’s name.

Lely was a pupil of Frans Pieter de Grebber for some two years , and is listed in the Guild of St. Luke in Haarlem for October 1637. He came to London in 1641, where he quickly established himself as a portraitist of the English aristocracy, though also painting landscapes, religious and historical subjects. His paintings at that time were greatly influenced by the Dutch baroque style, and particularly by the work of Van Dyck. He became a freeman in the Painter-Stainers Company in 1647. He was made the principal painter to King Charles I and given control over the royal art collection, and after the execution of that monarch, he served under Oliver Cromwell and his son. In 1660 King Charles II appointed him his Principal Painter in Ordinary. In 1661, the king granted him an annual stipend of two hundred pounds 'as formerly to Sr Vandyke'

During the Commonwealth he adopted a more sombre, almost puritanical style, with emphasis, as here, on the psychology of the sitters rather than the opulence of their costumes. After the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, his palette becomes altogether more colourful, and his portraits of women are noted for their brilliant, sometimes almost flashy, colouring, skillful rendering of fabrics, and an air of languid sensuality with which they invest their subjects, most famously in the portrait series of court ladies entitled The Windsor Beauties (1660s; Hampton Court, London). These later portraits, whilst often gloriously decorative, lack the more introspective intensity and charm of his early work, and they sometimes degenerate into a facial typology where the sitters strongly resemble each other, as if conforming to an ideal of beauty without need to differentiate character or individuality.

Simultaneously he painted the portrait series of the Admirals (1666-67) at Greenwich, the best of them rugged and severely masculine characterizations. Pepys called him 'a mighty proud man, and full of state.' Lely was knighted in 1679, shortly before his death in 1680, rumoured to have occurred with his palette in hand, while painting a portrait of the Duchess of Somerset.