Mary Seacole

Monday 10 January 2005


A lost painted portrait, of Mary Seacole, the famous black nurse whose outstanding work in the Crimea can be seen as complementary of that of her contemporary Florence Nightingale, has recently come to light. This, the only known painted portrait of Seacole, has been lent to the National Portrait Gallery by its owner and will go on display from Monday 10 January.

Unlike Nightingale, Mary Seacole (c.1805-1881) did not come from a wealthy middle-class background or have any formal training. As well as the restrictions placed on women at the time, Seacole overcame racial prejudices to establish herself as a notable humanitarian, whose hands-on approach to nursing has become an inspiration to nurses today. Seacole was voted Greatest Black Briton in an online poll in February 2004 and this year the bicentenary of her birth is marked with a series of events and exhibitions in London.

The newly discovered portrait, the only oil portrait identified as Mary Seacole, is by an obscure London artist called Albert Challen and dates from 1869. The dignified likeness shows the head and shoulders of a mature Seacole, wearing a red neckerchief and the three medals which she was awarded for her service. The portrait had been used to back a framed print and was only recently discovered when the inscription on the back "AC Challen, 1869" caught the eye of a dealer who unsealed the frame and discovered the hidden portrait. Seemingly unaware of what he had found, he then sold the portrait at a small local auction in Warwickshire and it was subsequently acquired by writer and historian Helen Rappaport, who has been researching the life of Mary Seacole for the last three years, and who immediately recognised the identity of the sitter.

Mary Seacole was born in Kingston, Jamaica, to a Scottish soldier father and mixed race mother, who ran a boarding house for invalid soldiers. From her mother she learned nursing skills and the principles of herbal medicine. With the outbreak of war with Russia in 1854, Mary Seacole sailed to England and volunteered herself to those recruiting for Florence Nightingale's nursing contingent. She was refused interviews with the War Office, probably because of her ethnicity. Undeterred, Seacole travelled to the Crimea at her own expense, opening 'The British Hotel' outside Balaklava. This served as a canteen for troops and a base for her daily 'surgeries' for attending to the sick and wounded. She was widely known to the troops throughout the Crimea as 'Mother Seacole' and soon became a familiar figure on the battlefield, taking food, drink and her nursing skills to the wounded and dying. Seacole remained in the Crimea until 1856, returning to England destitute, after the sudden end of hostilities left her bankrupt. However, through the support and testimony of those who had known her in the Crimea, she had become a familiar figure to British newspaper readers and funds were established to assist her. Seacole was awarded the British Crimean medal, the Turkish Medjidie and the French Legion of Honour. Her autobiography " Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands " was published in 1857 and sold well. After returning to Jamaica for several years (1859-65) Mary Seacole died on 14 May 1881 at her home in Paddington, London. Her grave at Kensal Green Roman Catholic cemetery was re-consecrated at the instigation of Jamaican nurses who rediscovered it in 1973.

Helen Rappaport brought the portrait to the attention of the National Portrait Gallery and the work was closely examined. That it represents Seacole is supported by its likeness to other known portraits of her - an 1871 bust by Count Gleichen (Institute of Jamaica, Kingston) and a carte de visite photograph (Private Collection) - and by details of her dress, such as the scarf and the medals which she is also shown wearing in these verified portraits. Technical analysis of the painting revealed a signature "ACC" and showed that the portrait contained only pigments consistent with the date on the reverse. It is also on a colourman's prepared panel that is also appropriate for the date. The portrait appears to have been painted over another painting that contains the same pigments, suggesting it was by the same hand.

Albert Charles Challen, a hitherto unknown artist, is shown on the 1871 census as living in Hammersmith, London when he was described as an 'art student (painting)'. By the time of the 1881 census he was living in Camberwell, London and described as a practicing artist. He is recorded as having been born in Islington on 8 October 1847 and died on 1 September 1881, aged 34. Further researches in wills and other documents by Helen Rappaport have revealed that Challen's widowed father and unmarried siblings were later resident in Stoke Newington until the 1920s.

Sandy Nairne, Director of the National Portrait Gallery, said : "This is a wonderful discovery. A painted portrait allows us to appreciate the important 19th-century figure of Mary Seacole in new ways."

Helen Rappaport, owner of the portrait, said: 'As an admirer of Mary Seacole's courage and humanitarianism I am extremely happy that she can at last take her rightful place in British history as an important female personality of the Crimean War. For me, the National Portrait Gallery is the portrait's natural home and I am delighted that it will now be on free and open access for everyone to see it.'

Mary Seacole by AC Challen is currently on display in Room 23.

Notes to Editors

  • The portrait is 240 x 180mm and is oil on panel, signed "ACC"
  • Helen Rappaport's article on Mary Seacole will appear in History Today on 20 January 2005.
  • The Mary Seacole Bicentenary will be launched at Guys & St Thomas NHS Foundation Trust on 25 January 2005. For further details please contact Rudi Page, Project Manager Tel 020 8861 6167 Email
  • A new biography Mary Seacole, The Black Nightingale by Jane Robinson, is published by Constable & Robinson on 27 January 2005. For further details please contact Gina Rozner, Tel 020 7792 4701 Email
  • Channel 4 will be screening a new drama-documentary by October Films on the life and work of Mary Seacole in Spring 2005.
  • The list of 100 Great Black Britons was compiled in 2004 in response to the BBC Great Britons debate in 2003. Further information

For further press information please contact:
Hazel Sutherland, National Portrait Gallery Press Office
Tel: 020 7312 2452

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