Joan Carlile Britain's First Professional Female Artist? | By Lawrence Hendra, Head of Research

November 5, 2020

The present work was painted by Joan Carlile, one of the first professional female portrait painters working in Britain. It is painted in oils on copper and is unique within her recorded oeuvre.

Following her death in 1679, Carlile slipped into art historical obscurity and it was only much later in 1954, following the publication of an article in the Burlington Magazine by Dr Margaret Toynbee and Sir Gyles Isham, that her name was properly reinserted in the canon of British art.  As well as correcting numerous biographical inaccuracies (Joan was mistakenly called 'Anne' for many years), the article also expanded her recorded oeuvre and listed eight works by or attributed to her hand. Since its publication, many more works by Carlile have come to light, including a fine full-length portrait which was recently acquired by Tate and another, more intimate portrait acquired by the Government Art Collection from this gallery in 2018.

Although details on her early life are scant, we know that Joan was born in c.1606 to parents William Palmer, an employee of the royal parks of St James's, and his wife Mary, and that in 1626 she married Lodowick Carlell (1601/2-1675) (called 'Carlile'), a poet, dramatist and gentleman of the bows to King Charles I (1600-1649). In 1637 Lodowick was made a keeper of Richmond Park and the Carlile family moved to Petersham Lodge in the north-west corner of the park.[1] It seems likely that Carlile had already established herself as an artist in court circles by the time they moved to Richmond. Writing in 1706, the art historian Bainbrig Buckeridge described how Carlile '…Copy'd the Italian Masters so admirably well, that she was much in favour with King Charles I, who became her Patron, and presented her and Sir Anthony Van Dyck with as much Ultra-marine at one time, as cost him above 500 L [pounds].'[2] Throughout the Interregnum, Carlile remained a quiet supporter of the crown, keeping company with fellow royalists and possibly painting small-scale likenesses of the king based on William Dobson's portrait from c.1642.[3] The surviving correspondence of Bishop Duppa (1589-1662), a former royalist advisor who was exiled to Richmond during the Interregnum, provides further details on Carlile's time in Richmond. Duppa's letters reveal, for example, that they sometimes took in wealthy aristocratic lodgers and that by 1653 'ye Mistree of ye Family intends for London, where she meanes to make use of her skill to some more Advantage then hitherto she hath don.'[4]

The following year Carlile, along with her family, relocated to Covent Garden which was already home to several prominent artists including Peter Lely (1618-1680) and Samuel Cooper (1609-1672). The move to London, however, was not a great success and a few years later Carlile and her family returned to Richmond.

Carlile's difficulty in establishing herself in London was due in no small part to her gender. Social conventions would have prevented Carlile from working on an equal footing with her male contemporaries. For example, one-on-one sittings with male subjects would certainly have raised suspicion in the gossipier corners of court circles, which may in turn explain why Carlile's surviving works depict almost exclusively female subjects. Nevertheless, back in Richmond, Carlile continued to paint portraits and her reputation steadily grew. In 1658 she was named alongside Mary Beale in a list of 'Notable Modern Masters' in Sir William Sanderson's Graphice, with the special mention 'And in Oyl Colours we have the virtuous example in that worthy Artist Mrs. Carlile.'[5] In 1663, following Lodowick's surrender of his keepership in Richmond, the family moved back to London and lived in St James's Market. Carlile died in 1679, four years after Lodowick, and was buried alongside him at Petersham.[6]

The present work was painted in the late 1640s, and like other early works by Carlile, is painted on an intimate scale. The earliest recorded painting by Carlile is the double portrait of Lady Dorothy Brown (née Mileham) and Sir Thomas Browne in the National Portrait Gallery, London, which measures 18.4 x 22.9 cm. Although the two works are painted on different supports - the double-portrait is painted on panel, the present work on copper - certain stylistic similarities between the two are evident. The painting of Lady Dorothy's facial features, most notably her eyes, are very similar to the present work, as are the highly distinctive silvery highlights - a distinguishing feature in Carlile's portraits. The use of quick, confident brushstrokes to describe the folds of the fabric sleeves is also discernible in both works, as is the low positioning of the sitters within the composition.

The sitter in our work - traditionally identified incorrectly as Barbara Villers, Duchess of Cleveland (1640-1709) - is shown before a rocky outcrop, a visual prop borrowed from the work of Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641), and later proliferated by Carlile's contemporary Samuel Cooper. Numerous works by Carlile show her subject in the same cavernous setting, including another early portrait of a lady, probably Catherine Murray, Countess of Dysart (c.1603-1651), painted c.1640[7] on a similarly small-scale in an oval format.

View the artwork here.

View our exhibition Pioneers: 500 Years of Women in British Art here.


[1] Toynbee, M., & Isham, G. (1954). Joan Carlile (1606?-1679) - An Identification. The Burlington Magazine, 96(618), p.275.  

[2] Toynbee, M., & Isham, G. (1954). Joan Carlile (1606?-1679) - An Identification. The Burlington Magazine, 96 (618), p.276.

[3] A portrait of Charles I attributed to Carlile is in the collection at Belton House, Grantham. Another example possibly by her hand is in the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin.

[4] Toynbee, M., & Isham, G. (1954). Joan Carlile (1606?-1679) - An Identification. The Burlington Magazine, 96(618), 275. Retrieved from
[5] Sanderson, W. (2016). Graphice, the use of the pen and pensil, or the most excellent art of painting: in two parts ... (classic reprint). [S.l.], forgotten book.

[6] Toynbee, M., & Isham, G. (1954). Joan Carlile (1606?-1679) - An Identification. The Burlington Magazine, 96(618), 276. Retrieved from

[7] Thirlestone Castle, H.4703

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