Mary Seacole

Looking at the painting

These questions to ask your class about a reproduction of the portrait of Mary Seacole 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 has the date 1869 on it, making her about 64 years old )

What is she wearing that might give you some clues about her life?
(Medals to commemorate her involvement in 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)

    Mary Seacole,    by Albert Charles Challen,    1869,    NPG 6856,    © National Portrait Gallery, London Mary Seacole, by Albert Charles Challen, 1869

How was the painting found?

The rediscovery of the painting is an amazing story. An art dealer bought a framed print in a 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. Unable to identify the sitter, he sent an image of the painting to a historian working on women in the Crimean War. She at once recognised the sitter as Mary Seacole. She purchased the portrait and generously placed it on long-term loan at the National Portrait Gallery, before it was purchased by the Gallery with help from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Gallery supporters in 2008.

How do we know that it is Mary Seacole?

The portrait is of a mixed-race woman of the right age to be the Victorian entrepreneur Mary Seacole, who would have been in her mid-sixties when the portrait was painted. There is one known surviving photograph of her and various portrait sculpted busts of around the same date, all of which shows a very similar likeness. The medals worn in the portrait are recognisable as the British Crimea, the Turkish Medjidie and the French Legion of Honour, but they would not have been awarded to Seacole. Instead, they are likely to have been bought or borrowed by her and worn to commemorate her involvement in the Crimean War. Her red scarf is an emblem of her Creole identity. Unfortunately, we know very little about the artist, Albert Charles Challen, and nothing of the circumstances in which the portrait was painted or how it came to be hidden behind the print.