Barbara Villiers, by Richard Gibson, c1663, 9cm long
The Duchess was wearing a gold dress with puffed sleeves, slashed to reveal white underdress and fastened at shoulder with three pearl-set bands. She had a diamond-set crucifix worn at corsage, pearl necklace and drop-pearl earrings and partly upswept dark hair dressed with further pearls. The background was non-specific, except for a pillar.
Like all beauties at court, the model was depicted as if she just got out of bed from a spot of mid afternoon delight – dressed in a house-dress with masses of auburn hair, slanting and heavy-lidded eyes, creamy skin and a sexy mouth.
The miniature was done in watercolours on vellum, inside an oval, gilt-metal frame with spiral cresting. According to a catalogue from a 1974 exhibition called Samuel Cooper and His Contemporaries (D Foskett, London, 1975), this miniature was by family descent from Robert, 2nd Earl of Sunderland, who was the grandson of William, 2nd Baron Spencer. It is only 9 cm at its longest.
Barbara (1640–1709) had come from ennobled families on both her mother's and father's side, but she didn't hit pay dirt until she became King Charles II's mistress in 1660. At that stage she still theoretically married to Roger Palmer, although they separated in 1662. As a reward for her services, the King made her husband "Baron Limerick" and "Earl of Castlemaine" in 1661. Palmer was certainly laying down his wife for his king and country.
The court of King Charles II must have been very busy indeed - Barbara was openly and famously one of his long term mistresses. Together they had (at least) five children, all of whom he acknowledged and gave titles and land to. In June 1670 Charles created her Baroness Nonsuch and owner of Nonsuch Palace. Then he showered her with titles, making her "Countess of Castlemaine" and "Duchess of Cleveland".
Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland,
painted by Peter Lely in 1666
In Dec 1663, Barbara decided to convert to Catholicism, possibly in an attempt to consolidate her position with the King. Or perhaps to reconcile with her Catholic husband.
Other stunning portrait miniatures were painted in the C17th by the Hilliards, Peter Cross, John Hoskins, Samuel Cooper, Thomas Flatman, Cornelis Janssens van Ceulen-Johnson and the Olivers. Since the world of portrait miniatures was rather specialised, it did not surprise me in the least that several of the finest artists were closely related: Nicholas Hilliard was succeeded by his son Lawrence Hilliard (died 1640); his technique was similar to that of his father, but bolder and more colourful. Isaac Oliver and his son Peter Oliver (died 1648) succeeded Hilliard. John Hoskins (died 1664) was the uncle and art teacher of Samuel Cooper.
For some lovely examples of portrait miniatures, see the blog A Private Portrait Miniature Collection.