Thought for the Week – Mary Beale: Pioneering Portraits

Associate Rector, Ayla Lepine talks about the life and times of the English portrait painter Mary Beale, one of the few professional women artists in 17th-century London.

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Church Window Mask

The artist Mary Beale was born in 1633 and died in 1699. She was buried at St James’s, following a career as a highly successful artist with a studio around the corner from the church on Pall Mall, which she called her ‘painting room’.

This summer there are two exhibitions highlighting Beale’s work: one at the Weiss Gallery on Jermyn Street, and the other at the Dulwich Picture Gallery titled Mary Beale: Experimental Secrets. St James’s is known as the Artists’ Church, and Mary Beale is one of the church’s many celebrated artists in our history alongside William Blake, James Gillray and Mary Delany.

Mary Beale’s portraits were popular, and she was highly financially successful and well-known in her generation as a painter whose expressiveness captured the unique qualities of each person’s character. In her self-portraits, especially the 1666 portrait at the National Portrait Gallery, she demonstrates her professional work as a painter, holding a painting of her children and featuring a palette on the wall behind her. Dressed in fashionable seventeenth-century silk, she proclaims herself as a painter of the UK’s elite as well as her friends, family, and leaders in politics and the Church. One of her most expressive portraits is of Edward Stillingfleet, who was Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral and later the Bishop of Worcester. The ran a studio that supported younger artists including at least two women, one of whom – Sarah Curtis – later became a successful professional artist in her own right. It was a family business too, and her work was assisted by her two sons and her husband Charles. His chemical experiments with Beale’s paints created new textures and finishes and allowed for a more rapid drying time, so that she could work more quickly and earn a higher income.

At the Weiss Gallery, a portrait of Charles currently hangs in the window, attracting passersby on Jermyn Street and reminding visitors of Beale’s feminist practice: instead of the classic tradition of a male artist and a female muse, Beale and her husband reversed these roles. At Dulwich Picture Gallery, the exhibition focuses on her materials and techniques, linking art with science and technology in the seventeenth century. There is a new perspective on Beale at the recently re-opened National Portrait Gallery too. A collage of famous women in arts, culture, and society produced by Liberty Blake and Jann Howarth, titled Work in Progress includes Beale alongside Kate Adey, Sonia Boyce, Queen Elizabeth I, and many more.

The 325th anniversary of Beale’s death will be in 2024, and no doubt St James’s will be celebrating this artist in a variety of ways. Meanwhile, the exhibitions at the Weiss Gallery and Dulwich Picture Gallery, and the permanent displays at the National Portrait Gallery, offer an insight into her work and her London world.

Charles Beale c.1680-5 by Mary Beale 1633-1699

Sketch of the Artist’s Son, Bartholomew Beale, Facing Left c. 1660

Portrait of Robert Colman c.1690 B

Portrait of a Young Girl c.1681