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Mary Beale 'in little'

Fri Mar 31, 2017

By Lawrence Hendra

Over the past thirty years Philip Mould & Co. has handled a number of important works by the seventeenth-century portrait painter Mary Beale (1633-99) [fig.1.], who lived on Pall Mall, a stone’s throw from where the gallery is now based.

Fig.1. Self Portrait, 'Mrs Mary Beale' [previously with Philip Mould & Co.]

Fig.1. Self Portrait, 'Mrs Mary Beale', c.1675-80 [previously with Philip Mould & Co.]

Although many of Mary Beale’s works remain unidentified in private and public collections, a study of known examples reveals an artist of remarkable stylistic diversity. Beale’s most striking portraits are naturally those of her immediate family, and her quick, unfinished head sketches of her son [Tate Britain] are an obvious illustration of this. A similar work [fig.2.] was sold by Philip Mould & Co. some years ago to a private English collection.

Fig.2. Portrait of the Artist's Son, Bartholomew Beale (bap.1656 - 1714), c.1660, by Mary Beale [previously with Philip Mould & Co.]

Fig.2. Portrait of the Artist's Son, Bartholomew Beale (bap.1656 - 1714), c.1660, by Mary Beale [previously with Philip Mould & Co.]

As well as a talented painter, Beale was also an astute businesswoman. As the breadwinner of the family, a highly unusual position for a woman at that date, a commercial mind-set was necessary to maintain her studio. To supplement income from portrait commissions, Beale would also paint reduced-scale copies of works by contemporary and previous masters, including those by friend and mentor Sir Peter Lely (1618-80). Sometimes owners would lend Beale their original Lely portrait for copying, and on other occasions Lely himself would provide a work to copy.

These portraits ‘in little’ were typically painted on canvases of around 18 x 15 inches and were in high demand, especially following the death of Lely in 1680. However, although these works constituted a large part of Beale’s output, relatively few have been identified, and we were therefore pleased to discover two examples [figs 3 & 4] in America a few months ago.

Fig.3. Portrait of a Lady wearing a blue gown, by Mary Beale

Fig.3. Portrait of a Lady wearing a blue gown, by Mary Beale

Although the influence of Lely is obvious in this work, the original portrait from which it might derive has yet to be discovered. We know this basic composition was reused by Lely numerous times throughout his career, and can also be seen in a portrait previously with Philip Mould & Co., of Elizabeth Wriothesley, Countess of Nortumberland (c.1646-90), painted by a studio assistant. The pose is flirtatious as if the subject has been caught off guard, and the expensive cloth and classical props echo the visual splendour of the age propagated by Lely and his studio.

The vibrancy of the fabrics in figure 3 are particularly striking and quite different from the typically restrained colouring seen in the majority of Beale’s standard portrait commissions. The pigments used to create these colours were expensive (not least the red lake used in this work), and we know Beale would charge the same amount (£11) for a small portrait like this as she would for a 30 x 25 inch portrait, in order to cover costs.[1]Fig.4. Portrait of a Lady wearing an ochre silk gown, seated in a landscape, by Mary Beale

Fig.4. Portrait of a Lady wearing an ochre silk gown, seated in a landscape, by Mary Beale

The second recently discovered portrait [fig.4] is an exceedingly rare signed portrait by Beale, which has come light following the removal of several layers of discoloured varnish. The composition, with the subject shown seated beneath a rocky outcrop with a landscape beyond, is typical of the exaggerated stage-set approach to portraiture promoted during the Stuart period. It is unclear whether this work was based on a now-lost Lely portrait, or if it was an original conception by Beale for a client. Certain elements would suggest the latter, not least the positioning of the right hand, which bears a striking resemblance to a drawing of a hand by Beale’s son Charles, which is thought to have been based on a plaster cast prop from Beale’s studio.



[1] 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.85