When a gallery decided to put on an exhibition about one of Britain’s earliest female portrait painters, they had no idea that their galley sits on the same spot where many of the portraits were originally painted.

The painter is Mary Beale, born in a Suffolk village in 1633 to parents who had an interest in art, which they clearly passed onto their daughter, who was later to forge a career as a full-time portrait painter at a time when a woman painter was almost unheard of.

The father probably taught art to his daughter as he had connections with the City of London’s artists and knew painters based in nearby Bury St Edmunds.

In 1652, aged 19, she married her civil servant clerk husband, Charles, and they moved to London for his work. Soon, she was earning more than him, and he gave up his career in the civil service to become her assistant/manager.

Mary Beale was both gifted as a portrait painter but also slightly lucky in that her family wasn’t wealthy but was on the edges of wealth, so Mary was able to paint distant relatives and with her portraits hanging in their homes, her reputation amongst the wealthy spread. She also had in her husband not only a man she loved but also a man who was comfortable with his role in the household at a time when it was always the man who earned the money.

The family’s London home was initially in Covent Garden, close to the home of the Court Painter, Sir Peter Lely, who seems to have been a generous mentor for the young female artist. At a time when many artists learned by making copies of paintings, she was able to access old masters to study and even made a copy of Lely’s portrait of King Charles II.

Arguably, I would say that hers has a better relationship with the background, particularly the brighter stone column behind the King’s elbow which makes the arm feel more natural in its posture.

After a number of years based near Fleet Street, the family was able to afford to move to Pall Mall.

Until now, the exact address on Pall Mall had been lost, but in preparation for their exhibition of her work, the Philip Mould Gallery, which also happens to be on Pall Mall, commissioned research, and a bit of a surprise was in order. The gallery sits on the very same spot where the Beale family lived, and where Mary had her studio.

The paintings have come back to where they were born.

The exhibition features 25 of her portraits, several of which have never been seen in public before. It ranges from self-portraits of her family to full-height portraits and examples of some of her more expensive commissions.

Mary has a methodical painter, with a series of set fees for a portrait depending on size and if any special paints were needed. In the 1670s, she charged £5 for a head and shoulders, or £10 for a half-length, and extras for expensive ultramarine paint or frames. From that, her sons were paid anything from five shillings for a simple oval frame painted onto the canvas to £1 for a more detailed background.

The paintings are in style, instantly familiar to anyone who has visited any grand houses. They are in the Baroque style, using rich colours and paying close attention to the fabrics.

Apart from the notables she painted for commissions, she regularly painted her own family, and one painting, thought to be her son Bartholomew, is quite striking. His long locks and casually draped robe make him look quite the aesthete.

As an exhibition, it’s a chance to see a collection of art by a pioneer — a woman who not only made a living from her work but so much so that she could support her entire family from it and earn commissions from many of the noble families of the time.

The exhibition, Fruit of Friendship: Portraits by Mary Beale, is at the Philip Mould Gallery until 19th July 2024 and is free to visit.

The gallery is open Monday to Friday from 9:30am to 6pm.

After a visit, walk a few minutes up to St James’s Piccadilly church, where you can find Mary Beale’s memorial stone in the church where she worshipped — it’s underneath the far left window as you enter the church.


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One comment
  1. Reaper says:

    We are regular visitors to the Philip Mould gallery where they exhibit a wide range of artists. The staff are always very pleasant and often the exhibitions are related to others at public galleries. The best by far was the portrait miniature display which fit perfectly with the exhibition at the Portrait Gallery. Well worth calling in, just remember that the front door will be locked and that you must press the bell to gain admission. Also you will probably be asked to leave any large bag/rucksacks at the reception desk.

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