A Victorian reformer: Mary Seacole Appeal
by Albert Charles Challen
This small panel portrait of Mary Seacole by Albert Challen, painted in 1869, is a fairly recent discovery, made by Helen Rappaport. It has been on loan to the Gallery since 2004 and can be seen in Room 23. The portrait is the only known painting identified as Mary Seacole and shows her wearing the three medals which she was awarded for her service.
Born in Jamaica, Seacole owes her reputation to her nursing activities during the Crimean war. She travelled independently to Balaklava where she helped open the British Hotel between the harbour and British Headquarters. It served as an officers' club, a canteen for troops and a base for her nursing activities. She remained in the Crimea until July 1856. She was a familiar figure to British newspaper readers through reports in The Times, Punch and elsewhere. Her autobiography, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, was published in 1857 and sold well.
Since the 1970s, the development of a Black and Asian historiography has given her a central place in black British history. In 2004, Seacole was voted Greatest Black Briton in an online poll (www.100greatblackbritons.com). She overcame racial prejudices to establish herself as a notable humanitarian, whose hands-on approach to nursing has become an inspiration to nurses today. Apart from her contribution to British history, the portrait has an added significance for the Gallery's Collection as one of the earliest of an identified black individual. It is crucial to our broader goal of representing black and Asian achievement.
The portrait is on offer to the Gallery at £130,000. An approach is being made for support from the Heritage Lottery Fund but the Gallery still needs to raise a further £45,000 by 31 December 2008 or risk losing a work which has greatly broadened the Collection.