Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of the artist's mother, Mary Beale (1633-99), 1679 

Charles Beale II 

Portrait of the artist's mother, Mary Beale (1633-99), 1679, Charles Beale II
Watercolour on vellum
17th Century
Oval, 87mm (3 7/16 inches) high
Horace Walpole, Strawberry Hill Sale, 14 May 1842, lot 161 (bought by Burn) Earls of Derby, Knowsley, Christie's, 8 June 1971, lot 83, bt Lavender 1,800 guineas; Asprey & Co 1975; Purchased from Asprey & Co Ltd, July 1976; Private Collection.
South Kensington Exhibition, 1862, no.2224; South Kensington Exhibition, 1865, no.1915 (as by Samuel Cooper); "The excellent Mrs. Mary Beale": 13 October-21 December 1975, Geffrye Museum, London; 10 January-21 February 1976, Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne (lent by Asprey & Co Ltd).
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Turned ebonised wood frame inscribed on reverse;
Mrs Mary/ Beale a famous/ woman for Painting/ Lived in the Pall Mall/ Died at ye Age of 70/ years in the year/ 1698/ Painted in 1679
Gilt-metal reverse engraved;
Mrs Mary Beale/ Artist/ Painted by herself.

The authorship of this brightly painted portrait has not been certainly known until now. It was previously thought to have been painted by Mary Beale herself, but doubt remained in the absence of any convincing evidence that she painted miniatures. However, the portrait can be linked to a note made by the art historian George Vertue, who saw the picture in about 1734; ‘Mrs Beale 1679. a limning head by Charles Beale her Son who had some instructions in that Art by Mr Flatman. Limr & Poet.’ Since the miniature is dated 1679 on the reverse, and shares stylistic similarities with other known works by Charles Beale, a firm attribution can now be made.

Mary Beale was the first professional female English artist. She was a prolific painter, mainly in the style of Lely, and through the diaries kept by her husband Charles, a former Clerk to the Patents Office who became her studio assistant and colourman, we know much of her technique and working practice. She began her artistic career as an amateur in the 1650s, but started to paint professionally in the early 1670s, when, after escaping to Hampshire to avoid the plague, her family returned to London. She worked with Lely in his studio, and made small copies of his portraits of famous sitters. Herself the daughter of a puritan rector, she was particularly patronized by the clergy.

Mary’s family were all involved in the family trade. Charles, her younger son, trained in his mother’s studio, and prepared the grounds and draperies of her paintings. A talented draughtsman, he is best known for an exquisite series of intimate red chalk drawings which are now in the British Museum, London and the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York. In 1676 he was sent to work with Thomas Flatman ‘to learn to limne of him’ , an apprenticeship that cost the Beales £3. This miniature is perhaps Charles Beale’s finest, and is done with the subtlety and care one would expect of a son painting his mother. Charles ultimately abandoned miniature painting to work in oils, but was tragically forced to give up his career, because, as Vertue tells us, ‘his sight would not bear the practice’.

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