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Mirror Mirror - Portrait 1

Mary Beale (1633-99)
Oil on canvas, 1092 x 876mm (43 x 3412")
National Portrait Gallery, London (NPG 1687)

Born Mary Cradock, the daughter of a Puritan Suffolk clergyman, Mary Beale was one of the very few women artists working in England during the seventeenth century and has been called the first truly professional female artist in Britain.
Like Angelica Kauffmann, Mary Beale's mother died when she was young (about ten years old). Her father, who knew the artist Robert Walker (1599-1658), introduced her to painting. In 1652 she married Charles Beale, who, like her father, was also an amateur painter. Around 1654 they were in London, where Mary embarked on a semi-professional career as a portrait painter; in 1658 she is mentioned in Sir William Sanderson's Graphice or, The Use of the Pen and Pencil, in Designing, Drawing, and Painting Her first son, Bartholomew, was baptised at St Paul's, Covent Garden, in 1656, and her second son, Charles, who later became a miniature painter, was born in 1660.
In this painting she affirms her position as an artist by showing us a palette hanging on the wall behind her, and her status as a portrait painter and mother - her right hand rests on a canvas portraying her sons. Self-portraits are rare during this period, so it is interesting to note that of Anne Killigrew, described by Dryden as 'Excellent in the two Sister-Arts of Poesie and Painting'. Like Mary Beale's it is an interesting variation on a conventional late-seventeenth-century image.
In 1670 Mary established a studio in Pall Mall and became friends with Sir Peter Lely, court painter to Charles II. Her husband - who might perhaps be called a 'new man' before his time - was her assistant, mixing paint and keeping the 'notebooks' containing details of her accounts and sittings. His notebook of 1677 (in the Bodleian Library) details a busy year: eighty-three commissions yielding earnings of £429. Following Lely's death in 1680, his style of portraiture (and Mary's by imitation) became outmoded. Charles's notebook of 1681 (in the National Portrait Gallery's collection) refers to the family's reduced financial circumstances, ' we had but only 2s.6d. left us in the house against Easter'. In these notebooks, Charles Beale often refers to his wife as 'Dearest Heart'. Mary Beale worked until her death at the age of sixty-six and is buried in St James's, Piccadilly. Her husband died in 1705.


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