SEND Mary Seacole’s memories

Learning objectives

  1. Discover why Mary Seacole is significant.
  1. Discover how portraits can reveal useful information about people.
  1. Compare and contrast portraits from the past and present.
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    Mary Seacole,    by Albert Charles Challen,    1869,    NPG 6856,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
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
NPG 6856
© National Portrait Gallery, London
On display in Room 21 on Floor 2 at the National Portrait Gallery

Would you risk your life to help others?

This is Mary Seacole. She was a business person, writer, adventurer and nurse who lived over 150 years ago.

She is best remembered for her bravery and kindness. She used her own money to set up a special place she called ‘The British Hotel’ in the middle of a war in Crimea (which is now in Ukraine), where she helped wounded soldiers.

The people she helped called her ‘Mother Seacole’.

Look closer

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

What can this portrait tell us about Mary Seacole?

Look closely at the portrait. What can you see?

    • A blue coat.
    • Medals from the Crimean War.
    • A red scarf. Women from Jamaica, like Mary Seacole, traditionally wear scarves like these. This shows she is proud of where she was born and grew up.
    • Does she look proud, tired, excited, or something else?
    • Think about where she’s looking.
    • Do you think she is standing or sitting?
    • Is her mouth open or closed?
    • She might be thinking about her amazing life.
    • She might be thinking about some of the places she travelled to, like Crimea, Panama and London.
    • Or she might be thinking about some of the people she met and looked after.
    • Or she might be thinking about something else altogether, like what she’s going to have for her lunch!
    • It was painted near the end of her life.
    • We can see some lines on Mary’s face and some of her hair has turned grey. This shows us she is older.
    • The date ‘1869’ is written on the back of the portrait which means it was painted when Mary Seacole was 64 years old.
  1. What do you think the artist thought about Mary Seacole?
  1. Do you think ‘Mother Seacole’ was a good name for Mary Seacole? Why?

Why is this portrait important?

Mary Seacole was very famous and loved during her life. But when she died people forgot about her – for nearly 100 years. This portrait helps us remember her.

This is the only painting of Mary Seacole that we know of. It was accidentally hidden for years until someone found it, by chance, at an art sale.

Mary Seacole is now remembered as such an important person that this portrait is on show at the National Portrait Gallery.

Nurses then and now

Florence Nightingale is a famous nurse who also looked after soldiers during the Crimean War, like Mary Seacole. Compare this portrait of Florence Nightingale with this portrait of a nurse working in a hospital over 150 years later.

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    Florence Nightingale,    published by Illustrated London News,    published 24 February 1855,    NPG D5364,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Florence Nightingale, published by Illustrated London News, published 24 February 1855
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    'End of a Night Shift' (Allen Matembo),    by Kyle David Tallett,    29th April 2020,    NPG x201476,    Hold Still: A Portrait of Our Nation in 2020 © Kyle David Tallett
'End of a Night Shift' (Allen Matembo), by Kyle David Tallett, 29th April 2020
  1. How have hospitals and nurses changed?
  1. How have they stayed the same?
  1. Which hospital would you prefer? Why?

Find out more


What else would you like to find out about Mary Seacole? Try using these question starters:

  • I wonder why…
  • I wonder what…
  • I wonder how…
  • I wonder who…
  • I wonder when…
  • I wonder if…

You could visit the National Portrait Gallery, other museums and galleries, watch videos or TV programmes, read books or search online to find out the answers.

Explore more portraits

Explore more portraits of amazing doctors and nurses from the past. What can you find out about them?