Our rundown of the Top 5 Early Modern Legs demonstrates what was considered courtly and comely during the 15th-17th centuries as embodied by five famous figures and their pins.
3. George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham (1592-1628)
The extraordinary pair of legs in this portrait belong to King James I’s favourite, George Villiers. Resplendent in elaborate vestments and accoutrements, this portrait is likely to show him being installed as a Knight of the Garter, and so associates him with chivalry befitting of an ideal courtier.
Despite the fact that Villiers failed to actually display the tactical, martial, and diplomatic skills expected of a courtier throughout his patchy military and ambassadorial career, his exceptional good looks, graceful bearing, and integrity made up for these failings. Until, that is, he was assassinated by one of his own men at the age of 36.
Villiers’ portrait is in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery.
2. King Charles I (1600-1649)
This life-size bronze statue, showing Charles I on horseback, was commissioned by Richard Weston, Lord Treasurer of England and originally displayed in Roehampton. The sculpture recalled ancient Roman equestrian sculptures of powerful leaders while updating the image with contemporary fashion – the king’s legs are clad in very trendy, tall wrinkled boots. Charles I is represented as everything a monarch should be: noble, influential, and very fashionable.
Interestingly, Charles II purchased and moved the statue to its current location at Trafalgar Square, decades after his father’s death. He was perhaps continuing the legacy of improving one’s own royal image by harking back to one’s forebears.
The sculpture is in Trafalgar Square, south of Nelson’s Column.
1. Nell Gwyn (1650-1687)
This painting by Sir Peter Lely is believed to have been a commission from King Charles II portraying his mistress, the pretty, witty, Nell Gwynn.
The Early Modern Legs have so far belonged to men; because of conventional gendered clothing, women’s legs were usually completely hidden under skirts. Female actors in men’s breeches and hose were a recent phenomenon only to be seen at the theatre. Samuel Pepys was reportedly “very well pleas’d” with the legs of a cross-dressing actress.
However as shown, in this full-length nude, the display of women’s legs was acceptable if her entire nakedness was justified by calling her a “Venus” and associating her with the Roman goddess of love and beauty. As a woman, you had to preserve a sense of decorum and demonstrate Classical knowledge if you wanted to get your Early Modern legs out!
Gywn’s portrait is in a private collection.
Images courtesy of The National Portrait Gallery