King in the Hall

King Charles II, founder of the Royal Society. Sir Peter Lely also painted Charles’s father, Charles I, and the man who replaced him, Oliver Cromwell. (CHF Collections/Gregory Tobias)

King Charles II, founder of the Royal Society. Sir Peter Lely also painted Charles’s father, Charles I, and the man who replaced him, Oliver Cromwell. (CHF Collections/Gregory Tobias)

Why does a portrait of an English king hang in a hallway at CHF? After all, CHF is an institution devoted to the history of science and is located in a city known for the American Declaration of Independence.

But with a little work we can connect CHF to the long-dead monarch. The portrait is attributed to the studio of Sir Peter Lely. Lely was a Dutch painter who moved to England in 1641 and who soon became court painter to Charles I. Lely sailed through England’s political storms unscathed, painting England’s new ruler, Oliver Cromwell, after the king’s execution. He would later paint Charles II after Cromwell’s death and the return of the Stuart monarchy to England. Under Cromwell’s rule Lely became known as the best painter in England. He was in such demand that assistants often finished the portraits he began, as is likely the case with this painting of Charles II.

It’s Charles II himself who provides the scientific connection between this portrait and CHF, though Charles was always far more interested in his navy than in science. But he had friends who were fascinated by the new experimental science of the day and who persuaded their king to give a royal charter to a new scientific society established in 1660. Perhaps unsurprisingly the new group became known as the Royal Society of London, with Charles described as its founder. The king never visited his Royal Society, though he did send venison once a year for its anniversary dinner.

CHF’s collections include the works of many fellows of the Royal Society, including Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, Humphry Davy, and Michael Faraday. Another connection indirectly links the portrait to CHF: one of Lely’s apprentices was Robert Hooke, who went on to build the first air pump with Boyle and whose book Micrographia (1665) is in CHF’s library.