Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of a Lady, c.1680 

Mary Beale (1633-99)

Portrait of a Lady, c.1680, Mary Beale
Oil and Canvas
17th Century
30 1/8 x 24 7/8 in (76.5 x 63.2cm)
Private Collection, UK
Until recently, this remarkably alluring portrait by Mary Beale was disguised by several layers of dirt and discoloured varnish, making a judgement on authorship a difficult task. With these disfiguring elements now removed, however, we can confidently add this portrait to the recorded body of works by Beale, where it occupies an interesting place as one of her more flirtatious portraits of a female subject.

Mary Beale was the most distinguished female portrait painter of the Stuart period and 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, rather it was because she competed so successfully with her male 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 many of her contemporaries, including Sir Peter Lely.

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 – to escape the plague – the Beales returned to London and Mary established herself as a professional ‘Face-Painter’, and became the chief 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.

Beale’s strongest artistic supporter was Sir Peter Lely, Charles II’s court painter, and their friendship enabled her, famously, to observe the master in the act of painting – a remarkable privilege – in order to study his technique. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that the present portrait has in the past been attributed to Lely’s hand. This erroneous attribution is inscribed on the reverse of the lined canvas in a later hand (probably done in the 19th century), along with another inscription which identifies the subject as a ‘Miss Weston’. The reliability of this identification is questionable, although if deemed to be correct, then it is possible that the subject was connected to the Weston family of Ockham, Surrey, who appear to have patronised the leading portrait painters at that date.
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