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Mary Seacole

Mary Seacole
by Albert Charles Challen
NPG 6856

Looking at the painting
[These questions to ask your class about a reproduction of the portrait are similar to those that we use in the gallery - suggested pupil answers are given in brackets.]

What can you tell about her age from this portrait?
(Older woman, with some white in her hair; the back of the painting actually has the date1869 on It, making her about 64 years old )

What is she wearing that might give you some clues about her life?
(Her medals from the Crimean War and her red Creole scarf)

What do we call a face viewed from this angle?
(A profile; pupils could think about the different possible angles for a portrait and give their opinions)

How would you describe her face?
(Lined and wrinkled, shiny skin, quite narrow eyes, red lips and so on)

What sort of expression does she have?
(Proud and self-confident, maybe slightly weary; pupils should say how it appears to them)

What might she be thinking about?
(Any aspect of her life that pupils choose - her childhood in Jamaica, her boarding house in Kingston, her time in Panama, her work in the Crimea, being welcomed in Britain on her return and so on)

How was the painting found?
The rediscovery of the painting is an amazing story. An art dealer bought a framed print in a car boot sale in Oxfordshire. Puzzled to see a signature and the date 1869 on the board that backed it, he took it out of the frame. This revealed that the 'backing board' was actually a painted portrait, with the artist's signature on the reverse. Without identifying the sitter he sold the portrait again in a local auction. There, another dealer bought it. Because of the date and the medals, to identify the sitter he sent it to a historian working on women in the Crimean War. She at once recognised it as Mary Seacole. She purchased the portrait and has very generously placed it on long-term loan at the National Portrait Gallery.

How do we know that it is Mary Seacole?
The portrait is of a black woman of the right age to be Mary Seacole, who would have been in her mid sixties when it was painted. There is one known surviving photograph of her, taken a few years later, which shows a very similar face. The miniature medals worn in the portrait are recognisable as the British Crimea, the Turkish Medjidie and the French Legion of Honour. Additionally, her red scarf is an emblem of her Creole identity. Unfortunately we know very little about the artist and nothing of the circumstances in which the portrait was painted or how it came to be hidden behind the print.


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