For My Daily Art Display today, I am staying with an English artist but instead of a landscape painter and a man as was the case yesterday I am focusing on a lady artist, one of the most important portrait painters of 17th century England and who has been described as the first professional female English painter. Her name is Mary Beale and the subject of today’s portrait painting is her husband Charles.
Mary Beale was born in 1633, in Barrow in the county of Suffolk. Her father was the Reverend John Craddock, who was the local puritan rector. He was an amateur painter and was acquainted with all the local artists, one of whom was Peter Lely, a portrait painter. Although Mary Beale was never a pupil of Peter Lely there is no doubt that throughout her life she was influenced by his artistic style. Her mother was Dorothy Brunton who sadly died when Mary was just ten years of age.
In 1652, at the age of eighteen, she married Charles Beale, a cloth merchant and amateur artist and she went to live with him in Covent Garden, London. The Beales had two sons who survived past childhood, Bartholomew and Charles. Her husband, Charles became deputy clerk of the patents office in about 1660, by which time Mary had begun to study portraiture. In 1664, the Beales moved away from London. Charles had lost his job at the patents office and so they had a loss of income and they decided life would be cheaper in the country, so they moved to a farmhouse in Allbrook in Hampshire. A second reason for the move was for their own safety as that year saw the onset of the Great Plague in London which was to kill a fifth of the population of London.
In 1670, Mary and her family, returned to London and she set up a studio in Pall Mall. Here she painted many portraits of the aristocracy and local gentry. Her husband, not only acted as her assistant, but looked after the business side of her artistic venture and her son Charles trained as an artist in his mother’s studio. Her work was very popular and she received many commissions. In her husband’s diary he recorded that in the 1670’s his wife received no fewer than 140 commissions for portraits. Having returned to London she became reacquainted with Peter Lely who had been made the Court Artist to Charles II and many of Mary’s commissions were to paint copies of Lely’s works.
Mary Beale died in 1699, and was buried at St James’s, Piccadilly. Her husband died in 1705. The Beales’ first child Bartholomew died when he was young. Her second son also called Bartholomew studied portraiture but eventually gave up any thoughts of being a full time artist and took up medicine. Her third son Charles jnr. became a painter specialising in miniatures.
The painting today, simply entitled Charles Beale, is a portrait of her husband. She has portrayed him as a poet and clothed him accordingly in a style of unkempt abandon. His disheveled state was that of the preserve of poetic and melancholic genius. I love the informality of this painting with the sitter’s relaxed pose dressed in a brown gown underneath which we can see an open-necked chemise. This portrait is in direct contrast to the portraiture norm when the sitter is expected to be shown in a strong courtly pose. This is a portrait that exudes casualness and familiarity which of course one expects of a husband’s portrait carried out by his loving wife. This portrait has done away with the use of background drapery or Arcadian imagery which was so popular at the time and would no doubt have been included if this had been a commissioned work. It is an engaging and intimate portrait. The couple were very much in love and in his notebooks he always referred to his wife as his “Dearest and most Indefatigable Heart”. There was great equality in their relationship and the fact that after losing his job he “worked” for his wife, which was acting against all contemporary notions of married life. Religious, social and medical teaching stressed the secondary role to be played by women, whose place was determined forever by Eve’s original Sin. But Charles had no qualms about his position of apparent subservience. Mary was a firm believer of equality between a husband and his wife and between man and woman outside of marriage. She even put down her thoughts on the subject in 1660 when she wrote Essay on Friendship. In Tabitha Barber’s book Mary Beale she quotes Mary’s thoughts on the subject of friendship and equality between husband and wife, writing:
“…This being the perfection of friendship that it supposes its professors equally, laying aside all distance, & so levelling the ground, that neither hath therein the advantage of other…”’
Regarding the relationship in marriage between husband and wife, Mary wrote:
“…In marriage, God had created Eve as ‘a wife and Friend but not a slave…”
Mary Beale painted numerous portraits of her husband Charles which is testament to the deep affection between them.
This painting presently hangs in a private collection.