1633-1699
Portrait of a Gentleman

Oil on canvas
Image size: 30 x 25 inches (76.5 x 63.5 cm)
Contemporary gilt frame
£4,000

 

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This fine portrait of a bewigged gentleman is characteristic of Mary Beale’s mature and best period. We can observe Lely’s influence in the present work, particularly in the inclusion of a painted stone cartouche which was a visual device frequently employed by Lely from the 1660s onwards.

As is often the case with portraits from this date, the identity of the present sitter is not known, and as a result, we do not know for certain when or how the commission came about. Stylistically, however, it conforms with Beale’s portraiture from the early-to-mid 1680s when her work was in high demand.

 

Mary Beale

was born in Barrow, Suffolk, the daughter of John Cradock, a Puritan rector. Her mother, Dorothy, died when she was 10. Her father was an amateur painter, and member of the Painter-Stainers’ Company, and she was acquainted with local artists, such as Nathaniel Thach, Matthew Snelling, Robert Walker and Peter Lely. In 1652, at the age of 18, she married Charles Beale, a cloth merchant from London – also an amateur painter.

She became a semi-professional portrait painter in the 1650s and 1660s, working from her home, first in Covent Garden and later in Fleet Street. It was most unusual for a woman to take up a professional career as an artist at this time, but her studio thrived; her most active period was the 1670s and early ’80s. Mary Beale was not the only female painter in England, but her name has survived, until recently, as that of the only woman to make a successful living, and to enjoy a flourishing practice as a portraitist.

The family moved to a farmhouse in Allbrook, Hampshire in 1665 due to financial difficulties, her husband having lost his position as a patent clerk, and also due to the Great Plague of London. For the next five years, a 17th-century two storey timber-framed building was her family home and studio.

She returned to London in 1670, where she established a studio in Pall Mall, with her husband working as her assistant, mixing her paints and keeping her accounts. She became successful, and her circle of friends included Thomas Flatman, poet Samuel Woodford, Archbishop of Canterbury John Tillotson, and Bishops Edward Stillingfleet and Gilbert Burnet.
She became reacquainted with Sir Peter Lely, now Court Artist to Charles II. Her later work is heavily influenced by Lely, being mainly small portraits. Her surviving works, however, suggest far more the artist who was a close friend of Sir Peter Lely and widely reckoned to be Van Dyck’s most accomplished copyist. Her grasp of Lely’s colouring is evident, but the pleasant and direct manner in which she treats her sitters is entirely her own.

Mary Beale died in 1699 in Pall Mall, and was buried at St. James’s, Piccadilly in London. Her husband died in 1705.