Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of the Artist’s Husband, Charles Beale in a Black Hat (c.1631-1705) 

Mary Beale (1633-99)

Portrait of the Artist’s Husband, Charles Beale in a Black Hat (c.1631-1705), Mary Beale
Oil on canvas
17th Century
17 5/16 x 14 inches, 44 x 35.5cm
This recently rediscovered work is one of Mary Beale’s most engaging portrayals of her husband Charles, and reveals a degree of informality rarely seen in British seventeenth century portraiture. Unusually, Charles is shown with a hat and a beard. While the portrait may be a likeness of Mary’s husband at a particularly Bohemian phase of his life (in which case it must have been painted after he lost his job as Deputy Clerk of the Patents in 1664) it is also possible that it is something of a homage to a work by an old master. A drawing by Mary’s artist son, Charles (1660-1726), in the British Museum (below) is a copy of a work from the school of Giorgione of a Shepherd with a flute. Here, the shepherd is bearded and wearing a hat, and holds his head in the same aspect as the portrait of Charles Beale. The Beales owned a number of important works by other artists, including Sir Peter Lely’s self-portrait [National Portrait Gallery].

Mary’s portraits of her husband are not only important as works of quality that attest to her status as the most accomplished English female artist of the seventeenth century, but act as profound records of her radical attitude to femininity and the strong bond that existed between husband and wife. Mary Beale, nee Cradock, began her artistic career as an amateur in the 1650s. She started to paint professionally in the early 1670s, when, after escaping to Hampshire to avoid the plague, her family returned to London. Charles, whom she had married in 1652, no longer enjoyed the security of his post as deputy clerk of the patents office, and turned instead to supporting his wife by acting as her business manager.

In doing so, Charles was acting against all contemporary notions of married life. Religious, social and medical teaching stressed the secondary role to be played by women, whose place was determined forever by Eve’s original Sin. But Charles had no qualms about his position of apparent subservience. It was a role he took on willingly, and not just because of his deep love for Mary (in his notebooks he referred to Mary as his ‘Dearest & Most Indefatigable Heart’). Mary and he believed strongly in the concept of equality between man and wife, as evidenced by Mary’s ‘Essay on Friendship’, written during the 1660s. She advocated equality between men and women in both friendship and marriage, for without equality, true friendship could not exist; ‘This being the perfection of friendship that it supposes its professors equall, laying aside all distance, & so leveling the ground, that neither hath therein the advantage of other.’ In marriage, she wrote, God had created Eve as ‘a wife and Friend but not a slave.’ [‘Mary Beale’, by Tabitha Barber (London 1999), p.30]

Charles, it is clear, agreed with Mary, and threw himself into the work of supporting his wife. In the mid 1670s, Mary was able to earn the substantial sum of over £400 a year, in addition to the praise of contemporaries such as Peter Lely, whose works she was permitted to study and copy. Mary’s numerous portraits of Charles are thus a testament to the deep affection between them.

Philip Mould Ltd, 18-19 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LU.Copyright Philip Mould Ltd.