England's First Professional Female Painter

Renowned Portrait Artist Mary Beale was born near Bury St Edmunds and the town's Moyse's Hall Museum has one of the largest collections of her portraits in the world.

Mary Beale was one of the most successful portrait painters of the late 17th century and one of her oil portraits, believed to be of her son Bartholomew Beale, sold at auction recently for a record £100,000! She is widely believed to be Britain’s first professional woman painter.

Born in 1633 in Barrow, near Bury St Edmunds, to Dorothy and John Cradock, her father was a rector and an amateur painter, who may have taught Mary how to paint. During her childhood in Suffolk Mary's father was friendly with contemporary British artists such as Sir Nathaniel Bacon, Robert Walker, and Sir Peter Lely.

Growing up in Barrow, Mary lived close to Bury St Edmunds. A group of painters worked in Bury St Edmunds, including Peter Lely and Matthew Snelling, whom Mary may have met in her youth. Peter Lely, who was portrait painter to the court, took an interest in Mary's development as an artist, but it is not known whether this was in Bury St Edmunds or later in London. But we know that she started working by painting favours for people she knew in exchange for small gifts or favors.

Mary Beale - a self portrait (credit West Suffolk Council)

In 1652, she married Charles Beale, a cloth merchant who was also an amateur painter. Much of the  knowledge of how Mary worked comes from the 30 notebooks kept by Charles recording sitters, payments, and other information; which provide a fascinating insight into her world. Mary and Charles worked together as equals and as business partners, something not often seen during that period.

The couple moved to Walton-on-Thames some time after they were married, then later moving to  Covent Garden and then Fleet Street in London. One of only a small number of female artists working professionally in London during her day, she is widely believed to be England's first professional female painter. 

As well as an artist, Mary Beale was also a writer. She wrote 'Observations, an instruction on painting apricots using oils' in 1663. It is one of the earliest writings on oil painting instruction to come out of England by an artist of either gender.  Mary also wrote a manuscript called 'Discourse on Friendship' in 1666 and four poems in 1667.

The world's largest collection of her work is fittingly kept in her home town of Bury St Edmunds at Moyse's Hall Museum. The collection includes 26 paintings, 14 of which are on regular display at the museum.

Beale: Observations, a new one-off exhibition of Mary Beale's paintings, including loans never seen in Bury St Edmunds before, will go on display at Moyse's Hall Museum from October 16 2021 until February 27 2022.

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