Helen Draper: Mary Beale’s self-portraits

During the WSG’s recent trip to the Geffrye Museum, member Helen Draper gave a talk about the seventeenth-century artist Mary Beale.  She writes more below.

As already described so beautifully by Miriam Al Jamil, members of the WSG met for this year’s annual outing at East London’s Geffrye Museum, an institution devoted mainly to the study and representation of England’s middle classes from 1600 the present day. A particularly interesting example of a middling family of the mid- to late-seventeenth century, that of artist Mary Beale, is represented in the collection by a very novel object. Beale’s Self-portrait with her husband and son (c.1660, oil on canvas, 63.5 x 76.2 cm) is the earliest of her firmly attributed works, and in it she put a daring new slant on a well established male genre – that of the artist’s self-portrait with his family. At first glance this slightly sombre yet affecting portrait appears too small and unassuming to be of revolutionary importance in the canon of British art history, yet in it Mary very purposefully placed herself, a virtuous Christian wife and mother, in the role of creator, the author of her own and her family’s painted biography.

Mary Cradock (1633-99), born the daughter of a clergyman in the hamlet of Barrow in Suffolk, married Charles Beale (1632-1705) in 1652 just days before her father’s untimely death left her an orphan. By 1654 the couple and their newborn son, Bartholomew ‘Batt’ Beale, were living in Covent Garden, the centre of metropolitan art production and patronage during the Interregnum. Mary’s near neighbours included fellow artists Peter Lely (d.1680), who prospered and went on to become Court Painter to Charles II, and the innovative Joan Carlile (d.1679) who was engaged in what proved to be an abortive strategy to earn a ‘fortune’ as a society portraitist. In 1658, when Charles Beale was appointed Deputy Patents Clerk, the family moved eastwards to occupy the Patents Office house in Hind Court, a narrow alley off Fleet St and just ‘Without’ the London Wall. It was in that house – full of family, lodgers and servants – that Mary made her way upstairs to her top floor studio to paint the triple, perhaps quadruple, portrait now at the Geffrye Museum. I have suggested elsewhere that it is entirely possible that the artist was pregnant with her son Charles at the time, and that the space in the portrait between her, her husband and young Batt alludes to the other member of the family who was at once absent and present.

When, in 1665, plague spread through the city the Beales swapped their cramped little street for five years on a smallholding in Allbrook, Hampshire. Although we know little of Mary’s painterly activities in the countryside, brief references confirm that she continued to work, while Charles prepared her canvases. During their sojourn Mary Beale painted her second surviving Self-portrait (c.1666, oil on canvas, 109.2 x 87.6 cm, NPG), this time openly in the guise of an artist with her palette hanging on the wall nearby, and as mother to two young children who appear as the subjects of a small double portrait held at her side. Here Beale is again gently subversive, playing with the concept of likeness and asserting her power to create progeny in paint as well as flesh – an undeniable advantage over her male colleagues, and one shared by many women artists through the centuries.

In 1670/1 the family left their rural idyll and returned to London, this time as householders in a newly built terrace of well-to-do middling homes on the north side of Pall Mall. It was there, a stone’s throw from the mansions of St James’s Square and Charles II’s palace, that Mary Beale established the fully professional portrait studio in which she created fashionable likenesses of patrons who were stalwarts of Court, County and the City. Mary also found time to paint several other self-portraits, and dozens of gradually ageing studies of her husband Charles. Her last known ‘selfie’ (c.1681, oil on bed ticking, 121.9 x 104.1 cm, private collection) painted when she was almost fifty, shows a self-possessed woman, well, but not opulently dressed, a pet spaniel by her side. Echoing the still, interrogative gaze of the earlier images, her expression in this portrait is again characteristic of the inner three-way visual conversation being conducted between Beale the creator, subject and viewer of her own likeness.

Helen is a conservator and is currently completing a PhD thesis on Mary Beale part-time at the Courtauld Institute and IHR. You can read more about her work on her very elegant website, www.draperconservation.com.

Miriam Al Jamil: thoughts from the Geffrye

This year the WSG’s annual outing was to the Geffrye Museum.  WSG member Miriam Al Jamil writes about the day:

Family portrait (artist and sitter unknown), c1750, Geffrye Museum
Family portrait (artist and sitter unknown), c1750, Geffrye Museum

“This year our group visit was to the Geffrye Museum, coming close on the heels of our workshop.  So from discussions centring on the public voice increasingly claimed by women we turned to the traditional private sphere of domestic spaces.  The museum occupies a modest almshouse building which opened for pensioners of the Ironmongers Company in 1714.  It was built by the wealthy merchant Sir Robert Geffrye, and rooms in a side wing of the museum have been restored to display the accommodation offered to pensioners until the early twentieth-century. The emphasis was on cleanliness, godliness (regular attendance at the small chapel was compulsory), but also on a degree of comfort and stability. As a ‘Museum of the Home’ there is an emphasis on the variety and development of material culture from the seventeenth century onwards. The personal items included in the reconstructed pensioners’ rooms are the first examples we saw of the carefully displayed objects that characterise the Geffrye’s approach to historical engagement.

The main gallery conducts us through an enfilade series of period room settings beginning with 1630 and concluding in 1998. Although our visit mirrors the experience of progressing through the rooms in stately homes the emphasis is specifically on middle class life and culture. Informative displays of materials and construction, the trades and markets supplying necessities and luxuries are well presented introductions to each room. We are encouraged to imagine that the residents have just slipped out and we are thus voyeurs encountering the possessions that defined a family’s status and interests at particular points in time.

Arrangements and contacts made by WSG members Angela Escott and Marion Durnin meant that archivists had prepared a selection of books, documents and objects from the archive as part of our visit. This was certainly a highlight and I am sure will encourage further exploration by WSG researchers. The archive focuses on domestic material, mainly from London, and with an inevitable accent on women’s history. There is a fine collection of cookery and medical recipe books, household accounts and diaries, prints and manuals. A small chest of drawers with a pencilled note indicating that it was made for a woman in 1728 has rare provenance, as does a japanned corner cupboard of around 1750 with the japanner’s stamp inscribed. The museum keeps a selection of shipwreck porcelain tea ware, complete with barnacles, to demonstrate what might have been kept in the cupboard. These pieces could be handled, and are among resources available for a variety of educational programmes.

Items from the Geffrye Museum library and archive
Items from the Geffrye Museum library and archive

Our trip concluded with WSG member Helen Draper’s fascinating insight into the life and work of her research subject, the artist Mary Beale. Beale’s self-portrait with her husband and son of about 1660 is her first known painting and it was a treat to have the opportunity to examine and discuss it. The possibility that the artist had depicted herself in late pregnancy was of particular interest. Helen showed us sketches related to the work, and placed it within the context of Beale’s career. Our trip provided much food for thought as I am sure everyone who attended would agree. Many thanks are due to the organisers for such a pleasant and stimulating day!”

WSG member Helen Draper will be writing more about the artist Mary Beale in a forthcoming blog post.

WSG annual trip 2015: Wellcome Collection

This year, WSG’s annual trip was to the Wellcome Collection, nr Euston, London.  WSG member Marion Durnin recalls the outing:

“Passing under Anthony Gormley’s figure suspended from the ceiling of the Wellcome Collection entrance, our group met for coffee excited by the stylish surroundings.

We were warmly welcomed by Dr Christopher Hilton, Senior Archivist of the Wellcome Library who provided a potted history of the Wellcome Trust from Henry Wellcome’s upbringing in Wisconsin, to his meeting with Silas Burroughs which led to the formation of Burroughs Wellcome & Co. in 1882. First to the market in the manufacture of drugs, they led the way in medical research to become front runners of the British pharmaceutical industry. Dr Hilton’s witty and informative account revealed we owe the word ‘tabloid’ to Wellcome and Burroughs, being a combination of the words ‘tablet’ and ‘alkaloid’ used to denote the firm’s pills.

Success in business was not accompanied by happiness in Wellcome’s private life. He married Thomas Bernardo’s daughter, Gwen Maud Syrie soon after their meeting in Khartoum in 1901. But Wellcome’s passion for travelling and collecting curios, creating in effect a ‘national attic’ cost him his marriage. Following his divorce, Henry buried himself relentlessly in his work. This resulted in the amassing of a vast collection of artefacts rivalling the largest museums in Europe.  The riches of this collection have been brought to the public by the Wellcome Trust. Though primarily focused on the scientific and medical, the contents touch on all aspects of life, a boon for research in many fields.

In demonstration of this, Dr Hilton presented items from the Wellcome manuscript archive of special interest to our group. Alongside handwritten medicinal remedies (1647-1722) written by Elizabeth Sleigh and Felicia Whitfield, are their food recipes, giving precise detail of the lives of these women. The instruction on how ‘To Pull a Tooth’ alarmingly commences with ‘Seeth the brains of an hare in red wine; and anoint the tooth therewith…’ The recipe for Sack Posset required, for openers, ‘2 quarts of pure good cream’ and a guide on how ‘To Roast a Large Pike’ is but one gem among many.

We viewed the account book (1790-1804) of a medical practitioner in Northamptonshire (thought to be Timothy Watkins) containing details of the mothers, the births and inoculations along with precise accounts of income and expenditure.

WSG members inspect some drawings
WSG members inspect some drawings

The library reading rooms are open to all and the scope of works ranges far beyond science and medicine. Innovative design is all around; even the library shelves are illustrated and works of art, classic and contemporary, abound. Library Assistant Edward Bishop showed us a dramatic seventeenth century painting of ‘A Troupe of Travelling Performers including a Toothdrawer’ (after Theodor Rombouts) and a ball gown by artist Susie Freeman which on closer inspection is decorated with 6,500 wrapped contraceptive pills.

Paintings in the Wellcome collection
Paintings in the Wellcome collection

Following lunch Visitor Experience Assistant Sarah Bentley gave us a guided tour of particular items in the Permanent Exhibition which included a Mesopotamian amulet, a scold’s bridle of Brussels, with metal horns, used to publicly humiliate women (1550-1775). This proved a profoundly unsettling sight as did a brass corset with wasp waist and Chinese slippers which demanded foot binding.

We finished the day with everyone planning to return as it seemed we had only barely touched on the intriguing and rich resources housed in the Wellcome Collection and Library.  We are grateful to the staff at the Wellcome and to WSG committee member Lois Chaber for arranging such a worthwhile and fascinating outing.”

…and thanks to Marion for writing this account and taking the accompanying photos.