Mary Beale (1633-99)
This small-scale full-length format was incredibly popular during the late-seventeenth century, and Beale charged the same price for these works (£11) as she would for a standard bust-length portrait...
This exceedingly rare signed portrait by Mary Beale was recently discovered in America, and is an exciting addition to her list of known works.
This small-scale full-length format was incredibly popular during the late-seventeenth century, and Beale charged the same price for these works (£11) as she would for a standard bust-length portrait. Part of the reason for this was the cost of materials; the vibrant pigments were expensive, as was the fine weave canvas, which cost considerably more than the coarser canvas used for larger oils.
For the most part, these portraits by Beale ‘in little’ closely follow compositions established by Beale’s supporter and fellow painter Sir Peter Lely, and indeed it is known that Lely himself would give works to Beale for copying. Although possible that this work derives from an as yet unidentified portrait by Lely, it is reasonable to suggest, not least given the presence of a signature, that this composition was conceived by Beale herself. Furthermore, the positioning of the subject’s right hand is very reminiscent of a chalk study by Beale’s son Charles [British Museum], which is thought to have been taken from one of the many plaster cast studio props used by Beale when a subject was not present.
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.
 T. Barber, Mary Beale: Portrait of a seventeenth-century painter, her family and her studio, exhibition catalogue, Geffrye Museum 21 September 1999 – 30 January 2000, p.75