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Mary Beale

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Mary Beale

by Mary Beale
oil on canvas, circa 1666
43 in. x 34 1/2 in. (1092 mm x 876 mm)
Purchased, 1912
Primary Collection
NPG 1687

Sitterback to top

  • Mary Beale (1633-1699), Portrait painter. Sitter in 3 portraits, Artist associated with 53 portraits.

Artistback to top

  • Mary Beale (1633-1699), Portrait painter. Artist associated with 53 portraits, Sitter in 3 portraits.

This portraitback to top

Beale is shown holding an unframed canvas on which are sketch portraits of her two sons, Bartholomew (1656-1709) and Charles (1660-1714?)

Linked publicationsback to top

  • 100 Portraits, p. 35
  • 100 Pioneering Women, p. 31 Read entry

    Mary Beale (1633-99) is a rare example of a seventeenth-century woman who succeeded as a professional artist. Supported by her husband Charles, whose own employment was insecure, she set up a professional studio practice, having previously provided supplemental income for her family by painting mainly for friends. Charles acted as her studio manager and assistant, and his notebooks recording commissions, sittings, payments and other incidental information are an important source of information about studio practice at the time. She was one of four female artists included in William Sanderson’s Graphice … or, The most Excellent Art of Painting (1658) and also wrote an ‘Essay on friendship’, in which she sets out the notion – radical for the time – of equality between men and women, in both marriage and friendship.

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  • Cooper, John, A Guide to the National Portrait Gallery, 2009, p. 22 Read entry

    A professional portrait painter and mother of the two sons depicted on her canvas. Beale’s husband acted as her assistant, mixing her paints and keeping the books.

  • Ingamells, John, Later Stuart Portraits 1685-1714, 2009, p. 20
  • Piper, David, Catalogue of Seventeenth Century Portraits in the National Portrait Gallery, 1625-1714, 1963, p. 24
  • Rideal, Liz, Mirror Mirror: Self-portraits by Women Artists, 2001 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 12 September 2001 to 20 January 2002), p. 35 Read entry

    Born Mary Cradock, the daughter of a Puritan Suffolk clergyman, Mary Beale was one of the very few women artists working in England during the seventeenth century and has been called the first truly professional female artist in Britain.

    Like Angelica Kauffmann, Mary Beale's mother died when she was young (about ten years old). Her father, who knew the artist Robert Walker (1599-1658), introduced her 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 Pensil, in Designing, Drawing, and Painting... Her first son, Bartholomew, was baptised at St Paul's, Covent Garden, in 1656, and her second son, Charles, who later became a miniature painter, was born in 1660.

    In this painting she affirms 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 - her right hand rests on a canvas portraying her sons. Self-portraits are rare during this period, so it is interesting to note that of Anne Killigrew, described by Dryden as 'Excellent in the two Sister-Arts of Poesie and Painting'. Like Mary Beale's it is an interesting variation on a conventional late-seventeenth-century image.

    In 1670 Mary established a studio in Pall Mall and became friends with Sir Peter Lely, court painter to Charles II. Her husband - who might perhaps be called a 'new man' before his time - was her assistant, mixing paint and keeping the 'notebooks' containing details of her accounts and sittings. His notebook of 1677 (in the Bodleian Library) details a busy year: eighty-three commissions yielding earnings of £429. Following Lely's death in 1680, his style of portraiture (and Mary's by imitation) became outmoded. Charles's notebook of 1681 (in the National Portrait Gallery's collection) refers to the family's reduced financial circumstances, '... we had but only 2s.6d. left us in the house against Easter'. In these notebooks, Charles Beale often refers to his wife as 'Dearest Heart'. Mary Beale worked until her death at the age of sixty-six and is buried in St James's, Piccadilly. Her husband died in 1705.

  • Rideal, Liz, Insights: Self-portraits, 2005, p. 65 Read entry

    Mary Beale’s self-portrait is a succinct statement of her dual role as mother and painter. Like Hogarth, she uses the trope of a painting within the painting. In her hand she holds an unfinished painting of her two sons, Charles and Bartholomew, while her palette hangs on the wall behind. Mary’s husband, Charles, ran the studio as book-keeper and colourman, referring to her fondly as ‘Dear heart’ in his sitter and account books. He had trained as a painter, but recognising his wife’s superior talent, focused his efforts on managing the business. A successful portrait painter, Mary augmented her own list of sitters thanks to her friend Sir Peter Lely, who would sometimes recommend clients to her.

  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 40
  • Solkin, David H, Gainsborough's Family Album, 2018 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 22 November 2018- 3 February 2019), p. 21
  • Various contributors, National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain, 2014, p. 88 Read entry

    Mary Beale is a very rare example of a seventeenth-century woman who became a professional artist. Her husband Charles’s job was insecure, so, after a period of time in which she supplemented the family income by painting mainly for friends, she and Charles decided that she should set up in professional practice with Charles as her studio manager and assistant. He kept a series of notebooks recording commissions, sittings, payments and much else; the two surviving volumes are an important source of information about seventeenth-century studio practice. Mary also wrote a manuscript, ‘Essay on Friendship’, in which she argued for equality between men and women, both in friendship and in marriage.

    Mary depicts herself in this painting in what she would have regarded as her two primary roles: as a painter and a mother. The unfinished canvas she holds shows the heads of her two young sons, Bartholomew and Charles. Although her palette hangs on the wall beside her, she is dressed not as a working painter but in the kind of deconstructed gown made fashionable in court portraiture by her friend Sir Peter Lely, Principal Painter to the King.

  • Waterhouse, Ellis Kirkham, The dictionary of 16th & 17th century British painters, 1988, p. 19

Linked displays and exhibitionsback to top

Events of 1666back to top

Current affairs

The Great Fire of London starts in a baker's shop in Pudding Lane, destroying two-thirds of the city. Charles II and James, Duke of York personally direct and manually assist with the fire-fighting effort. Thousands are left homeless, though few people die.

Art and science

Mathematical scientist, Isaac Newton, formulates a series of groundbreaking theories concerning light, colour, calculus, and, after supposedly watching an apple fall from a tree, the universal law of gravitation.
Nicholas Lanier, Master of the King's Music dies and Frenchman Louis Grabu is appointed the post.


The Four Days' Battle. Dutch navy led by Admiral Michiel de Ruyter attacks the English fleet under George Monck, Duke of Albemarle, now Joint- Commander-in-Chief with Prince Rupert. Outcome of the battle is indecisive, though England loses twice as many men and ships, severely damaging the fleet.

Tell us more back to top

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Joan OLd

26 November 2016, 09:31

Mary Beale lived in Hampshire between 1665 & 1670 at Allbrook Farmhouse in the parish of Allbrook and North Boyatt, (now Eastleigh) having moved out of London due to the Plague, so this portrait was probably painted there.

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