John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester (Johnny Depp) by Peter Lely (1677)

This study of one of the most notorious of Charles II’s cavaliers only suggests Wilmot’s popularity and character.

The painter, Sir John Lely, was the most fashionable portrait painter in London just prior to the English Revolution (1642-1660). Fortunately, he was flexible enough — and good enough — to change sides and work for Cromwell.

With the Restoration of Charles II, Lely became the king’s principal painter. He painted men and women of Charles’ court, as well as naval men of the era.

John Wilmot (1647-1680) was much younger than Lely, and only 30 when this portrait was painted. He was a writer and poet, a naval hero during the Interregnum, an avid theatre-goer, a close friend of Charles II (until the king exiled Wilmot), and a rake. He married the heiress that he initially kidnapped, had a series of mistresses (several of which were actresses), wrote poetry and plays. In 1674 he wrote a satire on Charles II that caused the king to exile him — which lasted only a few weeks. He graduated from Oxford at 12, received an M.A. at 14 (also from Oxford), had a Grand Tour of Europe before he was out of his teens, and died at 33 from a combination of VD and alcoholism.

Die young and leave a pretty corpse (only 1 achieved).   

Wilmot influenced friends and playwrights Aphra Behn and George Etherege, being models for certain of their characters; also Daniel Defoe, Goethe, and Voltaire. He was the very definition of “rakehell” and he was obviously a very, very bad boy.

The 2004 film The Libertine was based on the stage play of the same name about Wilmot — played by Johnny Depp. Ah, there you go!

Wilmot was a brilliant, debauched, charismatic, cynical, talented, charming man living in complicated times.

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