As well as being an avid collector of Italian, Dutch and Flemish works, Lely was the leading portrait painter in England in the latter half of the seventeenth century, the successor to Van Dyck.
It was to Lely that Oliver Cromwell gave the famous instruction to paint him 'warts and all', but facial blemishes were not really this urbane artist’s strong point. After the Restoration of the monarchy in Britain in 1660, he flourished in the fashion-conscious court of Charles II. His Portrait of a Lady in the Fitzwilliam , with her lavish satin dress, her corkscrew curls and large almond-shaped eyes, is typical of the Restoration look that Lely helped define. It was his success as a society painter that allowed him to afford his magnificent art collection. He was so rich, it is said, that he even lent money to the king.
After Lely’s death his collection was sold and dispersed. The Fitzwilliam Museum recently acquired another drawing bearing his initials: Federico Barocci’s Institution of the Eucharist [PD.1-2002].