Mary Beale

Claudia Bacchelli, City of Information Centre

The Baroque movement in England describes large, usually 17th-century, works of a dramatic and exuberant nature with the aim of impressing the viewer.

Painters like Sir James Thornhill, architects like Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor and sculptor and wood carver Grinling Gibbons remarkably gave shape to the Baroque style in England with wonderful works which can still be seen today.

In the long list of extraordinary Baroque artists we can find the name of a lady, the portrait painter Mary Beale (née Cradock). She became one of the most important portrait painters of 17th century England and has been described as the first professional female English painter. Born in Suffolk in 1633 Mary Cradock’s father was an amateur painter and she was acquainted with local artists such as Nathaniel Thach, Robert Walker and Peter Lely, who will eventually play an important part in Mary’s career.

Mary Beale, Engraving, LLC Portraits, London Metropolitan Archives

Mary married cloth merchant Charles Beale in 1652 at the age of eighteen. Charles Beale was also an amateur painter and became Mary's studio manager once she became a professional painter. Court painter Peter Lely, who succeeded Anthony van Dyck in the role, took a great interest in Mary's progress as an artist, especially since she would practice painting by imitating some of his work.

Mary worked from her home first in Covent Garden and then in Fleet Street in the City of London, before moving to a farmhouse in Allbrook, Hampshire, in 1665 following her husband losing his post and also to try to escape the Great Plague of London. While there she also wrote her ‘Essay on friendship’ where she discusses the radical notion of the time of equality between men and women, both in friendship and marriage. Mary and Charles worked together as equals and as business partners throughout their lives and Mary became the main financial provider for her family through her professional work, a career she maintained from the 1670s to the 1690s.

She returned to London in 1670 but this time she settled in Pall Mall where she died in 1699 and was buried at St James’ Piccadilly. Her tomb was destroyed by enemy bombs during WW2. A memorial to her lies within the Church, paying respect to her life and works which marked a step forward for talented female artists to establish their professional career.

A self portrait painted by Mary 1675-1680 © St Edmundsbury Borough Council - Moyse's Hall Museum CC by SA 2.5