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Painted Ladies

Charles Saumarez Smith, Director of the National Portrait Gallery, reflects on some of the issues raised by the exhibition 'Painted Ladies: Women at the Court of Charles II'.

When I was a student of history in the mid-1970s, I don’t remember anyone being remotely interested in the subject of the Restoration. All the emphasis in the syllabus and the secondary literature of seventeenth-century studies was on the first half of the century, rather than the second:  on the causes of the Civil War, rather than its aftermath;  on exactly what happened in Parliament in the 1630s,  on the ferment of radical ideas, the Levellers and the Diggers, and not on the libertinism surrounding the court of Charles II. Every social grouping, every political affiliation, every aspect of the court, city and countryside in the early part of the century was subject to the minutest anatomy.

The Restoration, by contrast, appeared reactionary and torpid, the only curiosity being the fact that the populace, previously stirred by issues of great political debate, should have greeted the return of the monarch with such apparent, if short-lived, joy. The only book I recollect as having any sense of grand narrative concerning the second half of the century was Jack Plumb’s Ford lectures delivered in 1965 and published as The Growth of Political Stability 1675-1725, which was written as a deliberate challenge to historians to study issues of order, rather than disorder. But, in the 1960s, disorder was much more interesting.

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