Two richly dressed ladies are shown as though seated in a garden. The lady on the right wearing a bronze satin dress is somewhat older than her companion. The lady on the left in rich blue satin plays a guitar, an instrument that had just become fashionable at the English court. Lely has painted it in such detail that it can tentatively be identified as having been made in Paris in around 1660 by the Voboam family. Her left hand appears to hold down a chord which her right hand is positioned to strum. Strummed chords were an important element of seventeenth century guitar music, as distinct from lute music in which the strings were mainly plucked (information from Peter Forrester).
The sitters cannot be firmly identified, although a reference in a 1725 inventory of the property of James Brydges, 1st Duke of Chandos (1673-1744) - to a portrait of 'Sr. Lanc. Lake of Cannon's Lady, and Lady Essex Check' - may be to this work. But as Frances Cheke (died 1678) was already the wife of Sir Lancelot Lake (died 1680) by 1638, she would have been too old to be the lady on the left. Moreover, her mother Essex Rich, wife of Sir Thomas Cheke, had died in August 1658. Sir Lancelot and his wife had a daughter, Essex Lake (born 1638) who was to become Lady Drax: she could be one of the ladies portrayed here. Sir Lancelot's estate of Canons in Middlesex had been taken on in 1713 by the Duke of Chandos, who had married a member of the Lake family in 1696, and could have acquired the present picture with the house. The portrait seems later to have been sold in 1747, with other Chandos property, as 'Lady Drax, and Mrs. Francklin playing on a Guitar'; another portrait by Lely of a 'Mrs Francklyn' was in the same sale (present location unknown).
Sir Peter Lely was born to a Dutch family in Westphalia in 1618. He trained in Haarlem and at the beginning of the 1640s moved to England. In London, Lely had the opportunity to see works by the recently deceased Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) whose portraiture had transformed the public image of Charles I's court. With the restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660, Lely became principal portrait-painter at the court of Charles II.
The market for art in Britain at this period was almost entirely for portraits, and Lely increasingly concentrated on that field, absorbing the ideas of van Dyck and adapting his compositions, while lightening and brightening his own palette. Van Dyck's influence can be see here in the seated three-quarter-length composition, with a curtain behind the right-hand sitter and a landscape background to the left. One of van Dyck's innovations was the seated double portrait in which the sitters were either related to one another or were close friends or, occasionally, professionally linked. Lely frequently adopted this van Dyckian format, as in the present work.
Both the painting and its late-seventeenth century carved and silvered frame have recently been conserved at Tate.
Valerie Cumming, A Visual History of Costume in the Seventeenth Century, London 1984, pp.92-3
Oliver Millar and Diana Dethloff, 'Sir Peter Lely', in Jane Shoaf Turner (ed.) The Dictionary of Art, London and New York 1996, vol. 19, pp.119-25