Philobiblon: In the flesh

Saturday, December 18, 2004

In the flesh

beale, originally uploaded by natalieben.

Popped into the National Portrait Gallery today for half an hour to commune with the Stuarts, and was rewarded with the discovery that they've hung this self-portrait by Mary Beale, the first professional female painter in England.

I've only previously seen it in reproduction. The first surprise was its size - this is a huge, impressive canvas (an impression magnified by the heavy gilt frame).

The drapery of her dress and shawl is impressively detailed - it is thick, stiff and shiny. Would you call it a taffeta? If so a little research suggests it would then have been made of silk and very expensive.

The painting is subtly lit from the right of the frame (as you look at it), and a shadow thrown on the wall to the left.

This was painted, it is thought, as a showpiece for her work, just before she set up her professional studio, which was managed by her husband - you could almost call him one of the first house husbands. The companion painting of him is in Bury St Edmunds.

And what I find surprising is that none of their friends, in the clergy or the Royal Society, seem to have found it odd that she was effectively supporting him financially.

But she'd be pleased to be hung in such august company today - Room 6 -- with Boyle, Harvey and other scientific luminaries.

She has other works in the National Portrait Gallery.

She is also supposed to have painted a portrait of Aphra Behn. If anyone knows anything about that I'd love to hear it.


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