Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of a Mathematician 1680c.

Mary Beale (1633-99)

Portrait of a Mathematician, Mary Beale
Oil on canvas
17th Century
50 x 40 inches 127 x 101.cm
Christie's 30th October 1964 lot 71 as ''Kneller'' Portrait of Sir Isaac Newton, sold for £50 8s; Christie's February 26th 1965 lot 168 as ''Kneller'' Portrait of Sir Isaac Newton, sold for £42
We are grateful to Tabitha Barber of Tate Britain for dating this painting within Mary Beale’s oeuvre

Mary Beale enjoys a particular celebrity among the portraitists of the seventeenth century. This is not solely because she was a woman in a profession dominated by men, indeed, she was not alone in this: in The Excellent Art of Painting written in 1658 Sir William Sanderson records Mrs Beale among four named women painters practising in London. Rather it is because she competed so successfully with her colleagues, and was so prolific a painter. Additionally, through the diaries kept by her husband Charles, a former Clerk to the Patents Office, who became her studio assistant and colourman, we know more of her technique and working practice than that of any of her contemporaries, including Sir Peter Lely.

The precise details of Mary Beale’s training remain obscure: her father John Craddock had been a member of the Painter-Stainers'' Company, and had had his portrait painted by Robert Walker in the late 1640s. Walker was then pre-eminent among painters in London, particularly in the puritan circles that included Mary Beale's family, and it is, not unreasonably, supposed that Walker was her tutor in painting. In 1651 she married Charles Beale, a member of a prosperous family of Puritan gentry from Walton. Three years later their first son Bartholomew, the sitter in this painting, was born. Shortly afterward the painter and her family moved to Covent Garden, and began to associate with an erudite circle of artists, intellectuals and clergymen that was to provide the base of her patronage in later years.

Mary Beale’s painting remained an amateur interest until 1665, when Charles Beale lost his position at the Patent Office. After a five-year sojourn in the country – not least to escape the plague – the Beales returned to London and Mary established herself as a professional Face-Painter and the supporter of her family. The details of her work are familiar – thanks to the writing of her husband, and to the remarkable number of her works that survive.

Mary and Charles Beale’s large circle of friends encompassed not only fellow painters such as Lely, and divines such as Gilbert Burnet but members of the burgeoning scientific community and member of the Royal Society. The unidentified gentleman in the present portrait, dated by Tabitha Barber to c.1680/1 has been depicted with the attributes of the astronomer and the geometer. An armillary sphere sits on the velvet-draped table in front of him, and in his hand he holds a pair of compasses with which heis describing a geometrical solution involving triangles. Despite the apparent grandeur of the mise-en-scene it is probable that the sitter is a scientist by profession rather than a gentleman amateur, since he is shown wigless, an informality which would be unusual in the representation of a sitter or greater social consequence. By comparison, for example, Johann Kerseboom’s portrait of the Hon Robert Boyle (Royal Collection; Private Collection formerly with Historical Portraits Limited) is the image of a man of science, but the viewer cannot escape the realisation that it is also the portrait of the son of a nobleman and a person of social consequence.

The background and props that Mary Beale employs in this portrait are of a pattern common to that used in other portraits in her oeuvre and in those of her contemporaries. The plain column set – somewhat imprecisely – upon a broad base or parapet – here embellished with a classical frieze of putti – resembles that in her portrait of Catherine Thynne Lady Lowther (Marquess of Bath Collection, Longleat). This portrait, however, displays more invention and a greater scope in the inclusion of an elaborate and exquisitely executed landscape background. Such backgrounds are not rare in Beale’s work, but they occuir infrequently, and cast an interesting light on an often overlooked aspect of her talent. The Portrait of Charles Beale 1666 (Manor House Museum Bury St Edmunds) includes just such an extensive landscape, which displays here a fusion of elements that may be intended for Italy or be an idealised, Italianate rendition of the English landscape, and thus of a prospect familiar to the sitter.
Philip Mould Ltd, 18-19 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LU.Copyright Philip Mould Ltd.