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Mary Beale 1633-1699
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Mary Beale 1633-1699

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Three quarter length portrait of the artist's husband Charles Beale (1632-1705), dressed in an open-necked shirt with brown gown, his left hand resting on a large folio book which stands on a table.

 

Oil painting on a herring-bone twill canvas 50 x 40 inches / 125 x 100 cm.and contained in a fine 17th centruy carved and gilded frame

 

Painted circa 1681

 

Mary Beale was born at Barrow rectory, Suffolk, and baptised on 26 March 1633, the elder of two children of the Reverend John Cradock (c.1595–1652), the puritan rector of Barrow, and his wife, Dorothy Brunton or Brinton (d. 1643). He was a notable amateur painter and was, presumably, her first teacher.

On 8 March 1652 Mary Cradock married Charles Beale (bap. 1631, d. 1705), member of a puritan family at Walton Manor, Buckinghamshire. The couple took up residence at Covent Garden, London, later moving to Hind Court, Fleet Street, when Charles succeeded to his father's post of deputy clerk of the patents office about 1660. By this date Mary Beale had not only given birth to two sons, Bartholomew and Charles but had already gained some reputation as an artist: she was mentioned together with three other female painters in Sir William Sanderson's Graphice … or, The most Excellent Art of Painting (1658). One of her earliest extant works is the Self Portrait with Husband and Son (c.1663; Geffrye Museum, London). Her early influences seem to have included Robert Walker, the Commonwealth portraitist, and the miniaturist Thomas Flatman.

By 1664 Charles Beale's job had become insecure, and, with the plague threatening, the family departed for Albrook (now Allbrook), Otterbourne, Hampshire. While there, Mary wrote the ‘Essay on friendship’ (BL, Harleian MS 6828, fols. 510–23) in which she propounds the somewhat radical notion (for the period) of equality between men and women, both in friendship and marriage. Her philosophy was put into practice when, upon their return to the city in 1670, it was decided that she would establish herself as a professional artist; accordingly, she set up a studio in their rented house in Pall Mall. Few women were employed as artists in this period, and her career could only have been undertaken with her husband's encouragement.

She soon attracted a wide clientele from among the gentry and aristocracy, and from their own distinguished circle of friends, who included fellows of the Royal Society and puritan clergy, notably the future bishops Stillingfleet and Tillotson. Her prices were competitive: £10 for a three-quarter-length and £5 for a half-length portrait. Typical canvases feature warm brown colour tones and a feigned stone cartouche, both of which are apparent in the portrait of Jane, Lady Twisden (1677; Manor House Museum, Bury St Edmunds). Mary Beale's sons assisted her with the painting of draperies and later she was able to train and employ female studio assistants.

While his ‘Dearest & Most Indefatigable Heart’ (Beale ms. notebook, 7 Aug 1677) was industriously employed, Charles Beale assumed responsibility for organizing the commissions and payments and preparing artists' colours. He recorded these details and much other incidental information in a series of notebooks, which provide an exceptional amount of documentation for an artist of this period; two survive, one for 1677 in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, and the other for 1681 in the National Portrait Gallery. In 1671 Mary Beale's income totalled £118 5s., rising to £429 by 1677; the latter was perhaps her most prosperous year.

Additional information about the Beales is provided by their close friend Samuel Woodforde, whose diaries are held in the Bodleian Library. He describes Mary as a sympathetic and hospitable friend, while the attractive, puritan nature of their household is indicated by the family's practice of regularly setting aside 10 per cent of their annual income for the poor, and by Woodforde's comment, following a convivial occasion at their home: ‘We were very cheerful, and I hope, without sin’ (Woodforde, 2 Dec 1664). Mary's pensive but pleasant countenance is depicted in the numerous self-portraits, such as the Self Portrait (with Artist's Palette) (c.1666, NPG).

Of great assistance to Mary Beale's career was the friendship and support of Sir Peter Lely who, as the court painter, already exerted a prevailing influence on her mature style before their acquaintance. By 1672 the notebooks record that he had visited her in her studio and ‘commended [her] extraordinarily’ (Vertue, Note books, 4.168). Later he allowed her to study his own painting techniques, and she was able to build up a lucrative trade from making replicas of his portraits. Obviously ill at ease with his erotically-charged depictions of court beauties, she toned down this influence in her own derivative portraits, such as Jane Fox, Lady Leigh as a Shepherdess (c.1676; formerly Stoneleigh Abbey, Warwicks. now Manor House Museum, Bury St Edmunds).

By 1681 Mary Beale's commissions were beginning to diminish but she busied herself with producing pictures for ‘study and improvement’ (Beale notebook, 1681, 300), experimenting with informal poses, as in A Young Girl in Profile (c.1681; Tate collection), and using alternatives to artists' canvas; her portrait of her son Charles looking up was painted on coarse twill-weave fabric (c.1681; Manor House Museum, Bury St Edmunds). These informal studies are among her finest works, showing that, when not dependent on laborious commissions and the influence of Lely, she was an artist of individuality, sensitivity, and charm. Her current reputation has grown following the retrospective exhibition held at the Geffrye Museum in 1975. Mary Beale died in 1699 at her home next to the Golden Ball, Pall Mall, and she was buried at St James's, Piccadilly, on 8 October. A large number of her portraits survive, but the best collection is at the Manor House Museum.

The present painting seems to be painted on an type of canvas identical with that of the portrait of Charles Beale Jnr., and the pensive and introspective, albeit affectionate, nature of the two compositions suggests strongly that they were painted at about the same time and perhaps contemporaneously. The informality of the pose is strikingly intimate, and the muted lighting and sombre earth tones suggest a distant echo of Rembrandt, whose pupil Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723) had arrived in England in 1676 and who was to take on the mantle of Sir Peter Lely as the leading portraitist in England after the latter's death in London 1680. Kneller's earliest works in England still retain (just) the flavour of Rembrandt's studio: his informal portrait of John Banckes (1676: Tate Gallery; formerly Bastard Collection, Kitley End) is a poetic and restrained exercise in psychological portraiture which finds strong parallels in the present portrait by Mary Beale of her beloved husband. It thus emerges as a late masterwork by this most interesting of painters, and in an innovative, subtle and creative style far removed from the predictable drudgery of so much late-17th century British portraiture.

The present picture appears to be previously unpublished, but may safely be ranked amongst the finest of the dozen or so known portraits in oils of the sitter by Mary Beale.