Mary Beale (b. 1633-1699)
Mary married Charles in 1652. Both born into Puritan families, they were products of the proliferation of radical and dissenting opinion that occurred during the English Civil War.
Mary Beale was both one of the most skilled and most successful female artists working in seventeenth-century Britain. A thinker with radical views on the equality of the sexes, this striking portrait of her husband Charles – who called her his ‘Dearest & Most Indefatigable Heart’ – is a monument to the deep and sincere affection that the one felt for the other...
It dates to the most experimental period in the artist’s career. As the record books for 1681 – assiduously kept by her husband – reveal, Beale had by this date increasingly ceased to take commissions and instead painted largely for ‘study and improvement’. Taking as sitters largely those whom she found around her, particularly her family and her servants, Beale experimented with poses and unconventional techniques. She attempted to master the art of painting quickly, making portraits of sitters in which she challenged herself to capture a likeness in one sitting as opposed to the standard four. Her range of supports at this date, aside from the standard artist’s canvas, include sacking, onion bags and bed ticking.
The unusual thickness of the herringbone canvas on which this is painted is in keeping with this experimental period in Beale’s career, and similar canvasses were used for other likenesses of Charles painted around this date, including a portrait of him on a smaller scale holding a laurel wreath [previously with Philip Mould & Co.]
Mary married Charles in 1652. Both born into Puritan families, they were products of the proliferation of radical and dissenting opinion that occurred during the English Civil War. She may well have been taught by her father who was an amateur artist, but her early output also exhibits the influence of artist to the Cromwellian court Robert Walker (1599-1658) and miniaturist Thomas Flatman (1635-88)
When in 1664 Charles lost the lucrative job that he had held from 1660 as deputy clerk of patents, the couple moved to Hampshire – which also helped them to avoid the Plague in London. When there, Mary wrote her pioneering and far-sighted “Essay on Friendship” in which she argues for a parity between men and women. In this, it would seem that she was of the same mind as Charles, for he never took up a job when they returned to London. Instead, he occupied himself by working as Mary’s secretary and assistant, arranging sittings from a circle of patrons that predominately included aristocrats, clergymen and university figures, and helping to run her studio. The couple maintained their commitment to their Puritan faith, giving 10% of their income annually to the poor.
Mary built up a reputation as an independent artist of great standing – an achievement that was almost unheard of at the time. She won the respect of her fellow artists and was, Charles Beale recalled, ‘commended extraordinarily’ by the most celebrated artist of the day, Peter Lely (1618-80), when he visited her studio in 1672. He later became her friend and ardent supporter. Beale’s artistic legacy was continued by her son, Charles junior, who was himself a successful portrait artist.