Nell Gwynn (1650—1687), originally named Eleanor Gwynn, was a celebrated English actress and mistress of Charles II. Thought to have been of ‘low-birth’ she appears to have led a rags-to-riches life. First employed as an orange-girl in Drury Lane Theatre, she quickly became the mistress of its leading actor, Charles Hart, first appearing on the stage herself in late 1665. Spirited and good humoured, Nell was a popular figure. Described by Samuel Pepys as ‘pretty, witty Nell’, she is reputed to have been an excellent singer and dancer, but not suited to serious drama. By 1666 she had become a leading comedienne of the King’s Company with John Dryden writing many of her parts. In 1669 she became the mistress of Charles II, making her final stage appearance in Dryden’s Conquest of Granada by the Spaniards a year later. Thereafter, the King set her up in a fine house, where she entertained him and his friends. She never received a title herself, but secured them for her two sons by the King. Her younger son died in childhood; the elder Charles Beauclerk, was created Duke of St Albans. James II supported her after the death of Charles II, who on his deathbed had instructed his heir, ‘Let not poor Nellie starve.’
This twentieth century statue of Nell Gwynn occupies a niche above the main entrance of Nell Gwynn House, an apartment block in Chelsea. She is depicted wearing Restoration period dress with a Cavalier King Charles spaniel at her feet. Her association with this area of London, however, is uncertain and may be apocryphal.
For details of the further two sculptures on this facade, see Terry Cavanagh, Public Sculpture of Kensington and Chelsea with Westminster South-West, Watford, 2023, p.88.
Location: Sloane Avenue, London, SW3.