Mary Seacole

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Mary Seacole

by Albert Charles Challen
oil on panel, 1869
9 1/2 in. x 6 1/4 in. (240 mm x 180 mm) overall
Purchased with help from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Gallery supporters, 2008
Primary Collection
NPG 6856

On display in Room 21 on Floor 2 at the National Portrait Gallery

Sitterback to top

Artistback to top

Related worksback to top

  • NPG 7145: 'Work in Progress' (based on same portrait)

Linked publicationsback to top

  • I-Spy National Portrait Gallery, 2010, p. 41
  • 100 Portraits, p. 80
  • 100 Pioneering Women, p. 67 Read entry

    Mary Jane Seacole (1805-81) was a pioneering nurse, adventurer and writer. Born in Jamaica, she is celebrated for her heroic nursing endeavours in the Crimea. As a woman of mixed race, she laboured under a double prejudice, but her reputation came to rival that of Florence Nightingale. Despite nursing experience, gained at a home for invalids that was run by her mother, and her extensive travels, the War Office refused her request to go to the Crimea as an army nurse. Instead she got there herself, helping establish the British Hotel in Balaclava as ‘a mess-table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers’. Her efforts on the battlefield, embattled and nursing the sick, led to her name ‘Mother Seacole’. By the time she returned to England in 1856, penniless and in poor health, her fame had spread through William Howard Russell’s letters to The Times about the Crimea, highlighting the suffering and parlous army conditions there, and praising Seacole’s ‘errand of mercy’. The following year, a Seacole benefit festival attracted thousands, and she published her memoir, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands.

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  • Cooper, John, A Guide to the National Portrait Gallery, 2009, p. 4 Read entry

    Seacole became famous for her front-line nursing during the Crimean War (1854-6). She subsequently wrote a vivid autobiography, and in recent years has been much celebrated as a significant figure in black history.

  • Edited by Rab MacGibbon and Tanya Bentley, Icons and Identities, 2021, p. 32
  • Funnell, Peter (introduction); Marsh, Jan, A Guide to Victorian and Edwardian Portraits, 2011, p. 53 Read entry

    This is the only known painting of Mary Seacole (1805-81), a nurse in the Crimean War and a woman of great courage and humanitarianism, who overcame considerable obstacles to pursue her career. Born in Jamaica, Seacole did not have a conventional nurse’s training. She learned alongside her mother – a healer and specialist in traditional herbal medicine. Although not officially decorated for her war services, she wore with pride replicas of medals presented by the allied powers. When the war ended, Mary returned to England, destitute and bankrupt. She received support from many influential people and published her autobiography. This remarkable portrait only came to light in 2002, and very little is known about the artist or the circumstances in which it was painted.

  • Rab MacGibbon, National Portrait Gallery: The Collection, p. 67
  • Ribeiro, Aileen; Blackman, Cally, A Portrait of Fashion: Six Centuries of Dress at the National Portrait Gallery, 2015, p. 181
  • Various contributors, National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain, 2014, p. 154 Read entry

    Born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1805, Mary Seacole learnt her nursing skills from her mother, who ran a boarding house for invalid soldiers. After the outbreak of the Crimean War (1853–6), she sailed for England in 1854 and volunteered for Florence Nightingale’s nursing contingent. She was refused interviews with the War Office, probably due to her ethnicity and lack of formal training. Undeterred, Seacole travelled to the region at her own expense, opening ‘The British Hotel’ outside Balaklava. Here she fed and cared for the sick and wounded troops on the battlefield, becoming affectionately known as ‘Mother Seacole’ throughout the Crimea.

    This small portrait by the London artist Albert Charles Challen (1847–81) is the only known painting in oil of the sitter. It only came to light in 2002, and was acquired by the National Portrait Gallery six years later. Since the 1970s, the development of a black and Asian historiography has given Seacole a central place in black British history.

Events of 1869back to top

Current affairs

Gladstone introduces the Irish Church Disestablishment Act, which disestablishes the Church of Ireland, disassociating it from the state and repealing the paying of tithes to the Anglican Church of Ireland.
Girton College is founded in Cambridge by Barbara Bodichon and Emily Davies, the first residential college for women in England; women were granted full membership to the University in 1948.

Art and science

Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev invents the periodic table of elements, which arranges elements within a group in order of their atomic mass.
The British scientist Mary Somerville publishes her last book On Molecular and Microscopic Science.
Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir paint together in the open air at La Grenouillère, developing the Impressionist style.


The Suez canal opens, linking the Red Sea and the Gulf of Suez with the Mediterranean Sea, and transforming trade routes between Europe and Asia as merchants no longer had to circumvent Africa. The canal was largely in British and French control until Egyptian nationalisation in 1956, which sparked off the international Suez crisis.
Serialisation of Leo Tolstoy's epic novel of Russian society during the Napoleonic wars, War and Peace finishes.

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