Hampton Court is best known as a hub of Tudor history — the place to learn about royal life from a rotund actor posing as Henry VIII, or to listen for the ghost of a screaming fifth wife in the Haunted Gallery. Now the lesser-known Mary II Apartments, towards the rear of the Palace, are being opened up to display two resident painting collections together for the first time: Peter Lely's Windsor Beauties (from the 1660s) and Godfrey Kneller's Hampton Court Beauties (1690s).
Here you will find the most seductive, worshipped and gossiped-about women of the Stuart Court, including Charles II's famous mistresses Barbara Villiers, Louise de Kérouaille and Nell Gwyn. Laviciousness aside, this is also a fascinating glimpse into how artists of the era married classical references with hints of contemporary sexual freedom.
Charles II brought sexual liberty 'back' with him from his exile on the continent, and it soon became acceptable — even encouraged — for male courtiers to openly take a mistress. Charles himself had at least 12 in his lifetime. Lely and Kneller, the leading portrait painters of the era, painted many of the most famous court beauties, and the results are as notable for their sultry decadence as their artistic merit. The results were strikingly sultry and decadent, and, coupled with written declarations from contemporaries, serve as a vivid reminder of the 17th century concept of beauty — and what and where it could get you.
Don't miss representations of courtesans as classical beauties such as Venus and St Katharine — a mixture of iconography and pornography that many found shocking at the time — or the nude portrait of actress Nell Gwyn that Charles II kept hidden behind a sliding landscape portrait.
Hampton Court Palace, Surrey, KT8 9AU (+44 (0)844 482 7777; hrp.org.uk)
Read more: the newly reopened Kensington Palace and the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London.