Mary Beale (1633-99)
Beale enjoyed what appears to be a unique franchise to reproduce Lely's portraits for sale in a reduced format, or, as she called them, ‘in little’...
This remarkably vibrant work by Mary Beale is a recent addition to her recorded oeuvre and almost certainly derives from an original portrait by Sir Peter Lely (1618-80).
Lely, Charles II’s court painter, was Beale’s strongest artistic supporter, and the friendship between them famously enabled Beale to observe the master in the act of painting in order to study his technique. Beale is also known to have copied his work upon many occasions, and enjoyed what appears to be a unique franchise to reproduce his portraits for sale in a reduced format, or, as she called them, ‘in little’.
Although it has not been possible to determine with certainty the original portrait from which this work derives, it bears an undeniable similarity with a three-quarter length portrait of a lady illustrated in Les Arts in January 1913. At the time of publication, the portrait was said to be in the collection at Stafford House, and the subject was stated erroneously as Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (1660-1744). A hand-written note on the illustration, a copy of which is preserved in the National Portrait Gallery archives, suggests an alternative identification of the sitter as Arabella Churchill (1649-1730), mistress of James II (1633-1701) who later married Charles Godfrey (1648-1714). A number of engraved likenesses of Arabella exist, and whilst it is clear they derive from a composition very similar to this work, her facial features appear more robust and quite different to the subject seen in the present work. As was typical of Lely, the composition used in this work was replicated in other portrait commissions, and therefore it almost certainly relates to a now-lost original by 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. Shortly afterwards 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 – to escape the plague – the Beales’s 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.