COLUMNIST: Painting a picture of Lady Denham - the scandal and her demise

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This painting, currently on display in Graves Gallery, depicts Margaret Brooke, Lady Denham (1647-67).

She was married to the poet Sir John Denham (1615-1669) at Westminster Abbey in 1665.

He was 30 years her senior and described as ‘an old limping man’.

This portrait must have been painted about a year before the wedding.

Soon after the marriage Margaret became the mistress of James, Duke of York (1633-1701).

He was the brother of the current King, Charles II and was later to become King James II.

The scandal was common knowledge and this humiliation was too much for John Denham who went temporarily mad.

There were reports of him demanding rents on land that he had long since sold and declaring himself to be a divine being.

In fact Samuel Pepys, the famous diarist, commented upon the affair in his diary:

September 26, 1666

Here I had the hap to see my Lady Denham: and at night went into the dining-room and saw several fine ladies; among others, Castlemaine, but chiefly Denham again; and the Duke of York taking her aside and talking to her in the sight of all the world, all alone; which was strange, and what also I did not like. Here I met with good Mr.

Evelyn, who cries out against it, and calls it bickering; for the Duke of York talks a little to her, and then she goes away, and then he follows her again like a dog.

It was while John Denham was recovering from this bout of insanity that Margaret Brooke died.

Denham himself died only two years later in 1669 and was buried at Westminster Abbey.

A Lady Murdered? There were many rumours surrounding the death of Margaret Brooke. Although the cause of her death has never been confirmed it was claimed that she was poisoned by a cup of hot chocolate.

At the time there was suspicion that the Duchess of York may have murdered her, although many believed that it was actually Margaret’s own husband John Denham.

Despite her adultery Lady Denham had been popular amongst the public and John Denham was threatened with violence if he left his home. However, he soon subdued them with a distribution of wine at her magnificent funeral. In fact, no poison was found when post-mortem was completed so the cause of her death is still uncertain.

Peter Lely’s portrait of Margaret Brooke, Lady Denham was painted at the height of Lely’s career.

Margaret Brooke was allegedly one of the most beautiful women in the Court of Charles II.

In his work Lely tended not to explore the identity of the individual but conform to an impersonal standard of beauty.

He was more interested in asserting glamour and sophistication.

He emphasises these qualities through the use of sumptuous fabrics and the back drop which included a classical bust, an indication of education and status.

Sir Peter Lely was born in Germany in 1618 to Dutch parents.

After training in Haarlem in the Netherlands he came to England in the 1640s and became one of the most celebrated portrait painters in the country.

After the artist Sir Anthony van Dyck’s death in 1641, Lely had the opportunity to study many of his paintings as he worked for a number of his patrons.

Following the restoration of the English monarchy Lely became the Principal painter of Charles II in 1661. He was a prolific portrait painter and demand for his work was very high. By 1670 he had a large studio and after painting the sitter’s head from life would hand over to his assistants to complete the rest of the portrait. He is believed to have died at his easel in 1680, possibly from overwork.