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Sir Peter Lely, 1618–1680

Diana Kirke, later Countess of Oxford

ca. 1665
Materials & Techniques:
Oil on canvas
52 x 41 inches (132.1 x 104.1 cm), Frame: 61 x 50 x 3 3/4 inches (154.9 x 127 x 9.5 cm)

Inscribed in ocher paint, lower right: "Diana Kirke | Cts, of Oxford."

Credit Line:
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
Copyright Status:
Public Domain
Accession Number:
Paintings and Sculpture
Subject Terms:
countess | curls | earrings | flowers (plants) | jewels | nude | portrait | woman
Associated People:
Kirke, Diana (after 1646–1719), Countess of Oxford
Not on view
IIIF Manifest:

The Dutch painter Peter Lely moved to London in about 1643 and came into his own after 1660 when he was appointed Principal Painter in Ordinary to the pleasure-loving court of the restored Charles II. Diana Kirke (d. 1707) was one of the great beauties at court where her parents held office in the royal household. Their beautiful daughter was a valuable asset in promoting their interests. Diana, described as “free of morality” by one contemporary, was soon rumored to be attached to two powerful men before becoming the mistress of Aubrey de Vere, twentieth Earl of Oxford, whom she married in 1673. De Vere may have commissioned this portrait of his mistress. With deliberate irony, Lely casts her as Venus with a rose and bare breast, rather than as her namesake, the chaste goddess Diana.

Gallery label for installation of YCBA collection, 2016
Had we but world enough, and time, This coyness, Lady, were no crime… Andrew Marvell, "To His Coy Mistress" The portrait of Diana Kirke (d. 1707) is one of Lely's most sensuous and beautiful. It exemplifies his lush painterly and brilliantly coloristic style, reminiscent of that of Rubens, in which the richly painted surfaces echo and magnify the voluptuousness-and eroticism-of the subject. Like the mistress of Marvell's poem, Diana Kirke exudes provocative intimacy and mystery. With her beguiling stare she coyly commands her viewers, all the while remaining frustratingly silent in her ambiguous gesture. A modern-day Venus, does she proffer her rose to her viewer or deny him its beauty? Languorously posing, breast carelessly exposed by the falling yoke of her silken shift, does she promise or simply tempt? Likea rose herself, will she provide soft comfort or wound with her hidden thorns? Arousing questions and desires, she resists all answers. The painting was most likely commissioned by Kirke's lover, Aubrey de Vere, 20th Earl of Oxford. Painted in the late 1660s, when Kirke was openly acknowledged at court as Oxford's mistress, the work closely follows the standard pattern used for portraits of "Restoration Beauties," a formula Lely had devised earlier in that decade with his Windsor Beauties, a series commissioned by the Duke and Duchess of York (Royal Collection). From early in his career Lely's portraits of women were perceived as deriving from a single facial model, one thought to be fashioned from the features of Charles II's most notorious and powerful mistress, Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland: a contemporary noted that "Sir Peter Lilly…put something of Clevelands face…her Languishing Eyes into every one Picture, so that all his pictures had an air of one another."1 Certainly, Kirke's almond "bedroom" eyes and pursed rosy lips resemble closely those of her rival court beauties. Yet her intimate pose (subtly different from so many of the known, nearly formulaic stances of other sitters) and the careful attention lavished on the portrait by the artist himself set this image apart from the majority of Lely's female portraits of this period, most of which were produced by his studio assistants in an almost assembly-line fashion. Perhaps,in the longstanding tradition of portraits of mistresses commissioned by their royal lovers, Oxford had this picture painted for his own pleasure, keeping it in his private chambers, to be viewed and appreciated only by him and his inner circle of friends and associates. Kirke belonged to the bevy of beautiful young women so sought after by young courtiers like Oxford who roamed the halls of Whitehall in the 1660s. Second daughter of George Kirke, Groom of the Bedchamber to Charles II and Keeper of Whitehall Palace, she moved in aristocratic circles from an early age. Sometime after the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, an event in which Oxford played a significant role, Kirke and Oxford began their open liaison. They eventually married in April 1673; later, their youngest daughter Diana was-like her mother-renowned at court for her beauty. The family's fate would be forever linked to that of the royal family by the 1694 marriage of the young Diana to the first Duke of St. Albans, Charles Beauclerk, an illegitimate son of Charles II by his infamous mistress, the actress Nell Gwyn.

Julia Marciari-Alexander, This other Eden, paintings from the Yale Center for British Art, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 1998, p. 34, no. 6, ND1314.3 Y36 1998 (YCBA)
Possibly commissioned by Aubrey de Vere, twentieth Earl of Oxford (1627-1703), later husband of the sitter, Covent Garden, London, from Sir Peter Lely (1618–1680), the artist, of Diana de Vere, later Countess of Oxford (née Kirke, ca. 1644-1719), the sitter; by descent to Aubrey and Diana’s daughter, Diana Beauclerk, Duchess of St Albans (née de Vere, ca. 1679-1751), London; by descent to her son, Charles Beauclerk, 2nd Duke of St Albans (1696-1751), Burford House, Windsor; by descent to his son, George Beauclerk, 3rd Duke of St Albans (1730-1786), Rue Ducale, Brussels, Belgium [1]; offered at an anonymous auctioneer, Brussels, Belgium, June 12, 1786, (lot 46 ‘Le Portrait de Diana Kirke, Css of Oxford, vue de même jusqu’aux genoux’), in “Catalogue des Tableaux qui se trouvent à la Mortuaire du feu Duc de St. Albans” [a]; acquired by George Drummond (1758-1789), of Stanmore, Middlesex and Drumtochty Castle, Kincardine [2]; by descent to his son George Harley Drummond (1783-1853), Stanmore, Middlesex [3]; by descent to his grandson, George James Drummond (1835-1917), Swaylands House, Penshurst, Kent [4]; by descent to his son, George Henry de Vere Drummond (1883-1963), Pitsford Hall, Northampton [b]; probably by descent to his son, George Albert Harley de Vere Drummond (b. 1943); purchased at auction by BSR Ltd [5], at Christie’s, London, England, April 6, 1973 (lot 71, ‘Portrait of Diana Kirke, Countess of Oxford’), in “English Pictures” [6]; purchased by Paul Mellon (1907-1999) through Leggatt Brothers, July 1979 [c]; by whom given to the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut, 1981.


[1] George Beauclerk died February 1, 1786 at age 55 at Brussels, Belgium, and was survived by his widow Jane Roberts (d. 1778), and one illegitimate daughter, Anne-Amelie Beauclerk (1756-1826). As Beauclerk died without issue, the title of Duke of St Albans passed onto a distinct George Beauclerk (1758-1787), the grandson of Lord William Beauclerk, the second son of the 1st Duke of St Albans.

[2] George Drummond was the son of John Drummond (1723-1774) and Charlotte Beauclerk (d. 1783). Charlotte was the daughter of Lord William Beauclerk, who in turn was the son of Charles Beauclerk, 1st Duke of Saint Albans and Lady Diana de Vere, the daughter of the sitter, Diana Kirke. Thus, George Drummond was connected through his maternal lineage both to the sitter and the portrait’s previous owner, George Beauclerk.

[3] The work is listed among various portraits owned by George Harley Drummond in 1811, see Daniel Lysons, “The Environs of London Being an Historical Account of the Towns, Villages, and Hamlets, Within Twelve Miles of that Capital : Interspersed with Biographical Anecdotes “ Vol. 2, Pt. 2. London: T. Cadell and W. Davies, 1811. Pp. 665. https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_Environs_of_London/rOREAQAAMAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&bsq=Diana%20Kirke

[4] The portrait passed directly from grandfather to grandson, because George Harley Drummond (1783-1853)’s own son, George Drummond (1802-1851), predeceased his father. The work was exhibited in 1876, at Wrexham, with a number of other works from the collection of George Drummond. See Art Treasures Exhibition of North Wales and the Border Counties at Wrexham, Dryden Press, London, 1876, no. 359 https://search.library.yale.edu/catalog/h102327598?block=Books

[5] BSR Ltd (Birmingham Sound Reproducers) was a British manufacturer of record players and other wares. It was founded by Dr Daniel McLean McDonald (1905-1991), a significant art collector who exhibited part of his collection at Leggatt Brothers at 30 St. James's Street from October 16 to November 6, 1970. BSR Ltd owned Lely’s work as late as 1978-9, when it was exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery in London as part of the exhibit ‘Sir Peter Lely, 1618-80’. The catalog lists BSR Ltd as the lender, as does an exhibition label attached to the painting’s reverse. Dr Daniel McDonald also lent three other works by Lely to the National Portrait Gallery exhibit, and the catalog distinguishes between those lent by him personally and the one lent by BSR Ltd.

[6] The “English Pictures” catalog does not clarify the owner at the time of sale, simply listing the work as “property of a Gentleman”.


[a] Unknown Auctioneer, Brussels, Belgium. Catalogue des Tableaux qui se trouvent à la Mortuaire du feu Duc de St. Albans. http://primarysources.brillonline.com/browse/art-sales-catalogues-online/4060-17860612-saint-albans-duc-de;asc004069l04060

[b] Oliver Millar, ‘Sir Peter Lely 1618-80: exhibition at 15 Carlton House Terrace, London SWI’, London: National Portrait Gallery, 1978. Pp. 63, no. 46, ill. 46.

[c] Julia Marciari Alexander, “No. 21: Diana Kirke, after Countess of Oxford” in Painted Ladies : Women at the Court of Charles II. London: National Portrait Gallery in association with the Yale Center for British Art, 2001. P. 100 https://archive.org/details/paintedladieswom00pain/page/100/mode/2up?q=kirke

In a New Light: Paintings from the Yale Center for British Art (Yale University Art Gallery, 2023-03-24 - 2023-12-03) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition] [Exhibition Description]

No More Fog at the Channel - Holbein to Hockney - 500 Years of British Art (Fundación Juan March, 2012-10-05 - 2013-01-20) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Painted Ladies : Women at the Court of Charles II (Yale Center for British Art, 2002-01-26 - 2002-03-17) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition] [Exhibition Description]

Painted Ladies : Women at the Court of Charles II (National Portrait Gallery, 2001-10-11 - 2002-01-06) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition] [Exhibition Description]

This Other Eden : British Paintings from the Paul Mellon Collection at Yale (Art Gallery of South Australia, 1998-09-16 - 1998-11-15) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition] [Exhibition Description]

This Other Eden : British Paintings from the Paul Mellon Collection at Yale (Queensland Art Gallery, 1998-07-15 - 1998-09-06) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition] [Exhibition Description]

This Other Eden : British Paintings from the Paul Mellon Collection at Yale (Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1998-05-01 - 1998-07-05) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition] [Exhibition Description]

Acquisitions : The First Decade 1977-1986, Yale Center for British Art , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 1986, pp. 4, 9, 15, no. 35, color plate 2, N590.2 A7 OVERSIZE (YCBA) [YCBA]

Art : The Definitive Visual History, DK Publishing, New York, 2018, p. 241, NX440 .A785 2018 Oversize (YCBA) [YCBA]

Ronald Brymer Beckett, Lely., Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1951, p. 57, no. 407, NJ18 L54 B43 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Christie's Sale Catalogue: English Pictures. Friday, 6 April 1973, Christie's, 1973, p. 23, No. 71, Sales Catalogue [ORBIS]

Malcolm Cormack, Concise Catalogue of Paintings in the Yale Center for British Art, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 1985, pp. 144-145, N590.2 A83 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Brett Dolman, Beauty sex and power, a story of debauchery and decadent art at the late Stuart court, 1660-1714 , Scala : Historic Royal Palaces, London, 2012, p. 56, ND1314.3 .D65 2012 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Antonia Fraser, The weaker vessel, woman's lot in seventeenth-century England , Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1984, HQ1593 F7 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Flora Fraser, The English gentlewoman, Barrie & Jenkins, London, 1987, p. 56, HQ1593 F7 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Karen Hearn, Lady Anne Clifford, culture, patronage and gender in 17th-century Britain , no. 7, Yorkshire Archaeological Society, Leeds, 2009, fig. 21, DA378.P4 L34 2009 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Catharine MacLeod, Painted ladies : Women at the court of Charles II, , National Portrait Gallery, London, 2001, pp. 100-01, 243, no. 21, ND1314.3 M23 2001 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Julia Marciari-Alexander, This other Eden : Paintings from the Yale Center for British Art, , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 1998, p. 34, no. 6, ND1314.3 Y36 1998 (YCBA) [YCBA]

John McDonald, A Feast of Mellon, Sydney Morning Herald, May 9, 1998, p. 14, Film An Sy25 (SML) Also Available Online (Factiva database) [ORBIS]

Sir Oliver Millar, Sir Peter Lely, 1618-80, [catalogue of an] exhibition at [the] National Portrait Gallery, 17 November, 1978 to 18 March, 1979 , National Portrait Gallery, London, 1978, no. 46, NJ18 L54 M55 (YCBA) [YCBA]

National Portrait Gallery, London; Exhibit, Art International, Vol. 22, February 1979, pp. 43-44, N1 A1 A7 + (A & A) [ORBIS]

Paul Mellon's Legacy : a passion for British art [large print labels], , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 2007, v. 3, N5220 M552 P381 2007 OVERSIZE (YCBA) [YCBA]

Portrait of Diana Kirke, Apollo, July 1973, p. 75, fig. 7, N1 A54 + (YCBA) [YCBA]

Aileen Ribeiro, Fashion and fiction, dress in art and literature in Stuart England , Yale University Press, New Haven, 2005, p. 270, pl. 173, NX650 C663 R53+ (YCBA) [YCBA]

Duncan Robinson, Acquisitions : The First Decade 1977 - 1986, , Burlington Magazine, vol. 128, October 1986, pp. 4, 9, 15, no. 35, col. pl. . 2, N1 B87 128:3 OVERSIZE (YCBA) [YCBA]

Malcolm Rogers, Some Beauties of Sir Peter Lely, Connoisseur, v. 200, no. 804, February 1979, pp. 106-13, N1 C75 + (YCBA) [YCBA]

J. D. Stewart, The Lely Exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, London: Exhibit, Burlington Magazine, Vol. 121,no.911, February 1979, pp. 129-33, fig. 98, N1 B87 + (YCBA) [YCBA]

The Sale Room, Apollo, v. 98, no. 137, July 1973, pp. 74-5, fig. 7, N1 A54+ (YCBA) [YCBA]

Randolph Vigne, From strangers to citizens, the integration of immigrant communities in Britain, Ireland, and colonial America, 1550-1750 , Sussex Academic Press, Brighton Portland, 2001, p. 23, no. 71, DA125 A1 F76X 2001 (SML) [ORBIS]

Ellis Waterhouse, The Dictionary of 16th & 17th Century British Painters, Antique Collectors' Club, Woodbridge, Suffolk, 1988, p. 174, ND464 W38 1988 (LC) (YCBA) [YCBA]

John Wilmerding, Essays in honor of Paul Mellon, collector and benefactor, Essays , National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC & Hanover, NH, 1986, p. 266, fig. 7, N7442.2 M455 1986 (YCBA) [YCBA]

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