Mary Beale's self-portrait is a great statement to one of Englands's
first professional female painters. Worried about the future of her husband's
job, Mary started a successful portrait studio at their home in London. The business
was a equal partnership between her and her husband in every way; Charles prepared the canvases, created
new colors and managed their record books while Mary would paint her
masterpieces. Like many
female artists of that era, she was trained by her father.
She shows the viewer that she was also creative
in a socially acceptable way; as the mother of two sons.
Born in Suffolk, England in 1633, Mary Cradock was the daughter of a Puritan clergyman named John Cradock. Mary was one of the very few women artists working
in England during the 17th century and has been called the first truly professional
female artist in Britain.
Mary's mother died when Mary was only 10 years old. Her father, who was good
friends with the artist Robert Walker, introduced Mary to painting. In 1652 she
married Charles Beale, who, like her father, was also an amateur painter. Around
1654 they were in London, where Mary embarked on a semi-professional career as a
portrait painter; in 1658 she is mentioned in Sir William Sanderson's Graphice or,
the use of the pen and pencil, in designing, drawing, and painting. It is believed
that she may have studied painting under Robert Walker.
Her first son, Bartholomew, was baptized at St Paul's, Covent Garden, in 1656,
and her second son, Charles, who later became a miniature painter, was born in 1660.
In her self-portrait she confirms her position as an artist by showing us a palette
hanging on the wall behind her, and her status as a portrait painter and mother,
by showing her right hand resting on a canvas portraying her sons.
Self-portraits were rare during that era, so it is interesting that Mary's
self-portrait is an interesting variation on what was the conventional 17th century
Mary's husband lost his position as Deputy Clerk of the Patents in 1665, and
the family was forced moved to Albrook. Mary continued painting portraits; it was honest
and guaranteed work that would keep her away from the influence of Sir Peter Lely
that dominated much of her later works. When they returned to London, in 1670, Mary
established a studio in their house on Fleet Street. Mary's studio attracted an
influential circle of people, which included Thomas Flatman, the poet Samuel Woodford, John Tillotson,
who was the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Bishop Edward Stillingfleet. She quickly
became friends with Sir Peter Lely, a court painter for Charles II.
Her husband was her assistant, mixing paint and keeping the record books that
contained details of her accounts and sittings. His record book from 1677 details
a busy year: 83 commissions with total earnings of £429. Following the death of
Lely in 1680, his style of portraiture became outdated. Charles's record book
of 1681 refers to the family's reduced finances; Mary’s husband wrote "we had
but only 2s.6d. left us in the house against Easter". In these record books, Charles
often refer to his wife as "Dearest Heart".
Mary Beale’s portrait of Dr. John Wilkins which was painted in the 1670's was extremely popular, she would produce many replicas, and the head was engraved by
Abraham Blooteling. The pose was based on a portrait of Bishop Antoine Triest and
served, with variations, for many of her later Episcopal portraits. A bust-length
version at Wadham College, Oxford, is set within the characteristic feigned stone
oval, with swags of fruit, which frequently appeared in her work. During the
1670s, Mary was in demand as a portraitist from the life and also as a copyist,
particularly after Lely. Her prices, £5 for a head and £10 for a three-quarter-length,
were highly competitive. Her family and friends provided the basis of a steady flow
of clients. In 1677 she received a commission for 30 portraits of the Lowther and
Thynne families. Her work at this period, probably the height of her success, was
very uneven, but she occasionally produced an imposing portrait such as the Honorable
Henry Coventry, and she was usually successful with children and young adults.
By the time of Lely’s death in 1680 Mary’s practice was in decline, and she spent
much of her time producing intimate oil studies on canvas of her family. The Revolution
of 1688 brought advancement to many of her friends, but major commissions were beyond
her capabilities. The sympathetic head she painted of Dr. Thomas Sydenham is one
of the best of her later works. The exceptional documentation of her life and career
provides a unique record of the London art world of her time.
One of Mary's sons, known as Charles Beale went on to a successful career as
a painter. Mary also taught art and one of her students, Sarah Cuties eventually
became a well-known painter. Beale worked in several media including oils, pastels
and water colors. Her studies of children were particularly well-received.
Mary worked until her death in 1699. Mary and her husband are both buried in
St James cemetery, in Piccadilly.
You can view her self portrait at:
For more information on other female artists that have
contributed to art history, please check Lesser known female artists.
Women And The Art World. 2nd ed. : Alpine Publishers, 1971.