‘Permissible Beauty’ – New immersive installation at Hampton Court Palace will explore changing notions of beauty through history

Why are some forms of beauty more permissible, more highly valued, than others?

A new immersive installation at Hampton Court Palace will bring past and present together to explore this question and to celebrate a new chapter of British Beauty for the 21st century.

From January 2023, Hampton Court Palace will present Permissible Beauty, bringing together the ‘Windsor Beauties’ and contemporary portraits of six leading figures in the Black Queer British community to examine shifting ideas of beauty.

Informed by art historian and musician David McAlmont’s musings on the art collections at the Palace, it features new portraiture by acclaimed photographer Robert Taylor. The contemporary sitters are performers, activists, models, artists and musicians, Le Gateau Chocolat, Son of a Tutu, Ebony Rose Dark, Karnage Kills, Julius Reuben and Winn Austin.

Part of the Royal Collection, the ‘Windsor Beauties’ are a series of 17th century portraits by Sir Peter Lely. They have been displayed at Hampton Court Palace since the 1830s. They were brought together in the early 1660s, by Anne Hyde, Duchess of York, and mother of Queen Mary II and Queen Anne.

The Windsor Beauties conform to the narrow beauty standards of the 1660s. Lely’s paintings have been criticised since their own day for being ‘good, but not like’, in the words of Samuel Pepys, because they subtly adjusted the features of the women to suit what was fashionable, like a modern digital filter.

They depict ten women who were prominent members of the royal court in the reign of Charles II, including his principal mistress Barbara Villiers. Other women who sat for the portraits included noted members of the nobility, such as Frances Stuart, who received attention for her beauty from the time she entered court. This display will pair her portrait in feminine clothes with a portrait of Frances made at the same time, when she was about 17, by Jacob Huysmans, which shows her dressed in the masculine clothes of an aristocratic soldier. This 17th Century example shows the long history of self-expression and authenticity in portraiture that speaks directly to the lives of the contemporary sitters.

The personal testimony of the contemporary sitters challenges and expands the narrow standards of beauty we have inherited from the past. Through photographs, film, interviews and performance they offer a more inclusive idea of beauty that is relevant to every person.

Included in palace admission, the installation – featuring photography, film and digital media alongside the historic paintings - is part of a project led by the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries at the University of Leicester in collaboration with Historic Royal Palaces – the charity that looks after Hampton Court Palace.

Matthew Storey (Collections curator for Historic Royal Palaces) – ‘I’ve always been fascinated by Sir Peter Lely’s Windsor Beauties, which have been a special part of Hampton Court Palace’s history since the 1830s. Permissible Beauty celebrates them afresh, as a view into the lives of these women in the 1660s, and as an inspiration for today’s creative talent. I can’t wait to re-introduce visitors to our ten remarkable 17th century beauties, and for them to meet our smart, fabulous, and very talented, modern beauties.’

Karnage Kills (Grime artist and rapper) – ‘The stories behind Hampton Court Palace are still relevant today, just in a different way. The lengths women used to go to to meet beauty standards were just as drastic back then as they are now, just done in a different way. Permissible Beauty might shine more of a light on what’s wrong with the unrealistic beauty standards we, for some reason, adhere to.’

Richard Sandell (Researcher) – ‘By placing centre stage Black and Queer lives and experiences that have often been overlooked in our national story, our project asks why some forms of beauty are more highly valued than others. At a time when people’s opportunities to express their full selves can seem diminished, projects like Permissible Beauty have never felt more important.’

Access to Permissible Beauty is included in palace admission. Ticket for Hampton Court Palace: Adult £25.30 / Concession £20.20 / Child £12.60. Free admission for Historic Royal Palaces members.

For more information on Permissible Beauty, visit www.hrp.org.uk/whats-on/permissible-beauty