The Excellent Mrs Mary Beale

The Excellent Mrs Mary Beale

Bright Souls Exhibition | June 2019

In June 2019, we presented works by Mary Beale, the first successful female British artist, alongside works by Joan Carlile and Anne Killigrew in our summer exhibition in London, '“Bright Souls”: The Forgotten Story of Britain’s First Female Artists'.

Unlike both Joan Carlile and Anne Killigrew, Mary Beale was not born into a family with court connections. Her father was the Rector of Barrow in Suffolk, John Cradock (d.1652). He was, however, an amateur artist, and taught his daughter to paint. Although her talent was not in doubt, Beale’s artistic ambitions were at first confined to painting as an amateur, creating intimate portraits of her friends and family. But in 1664 her husband, Charles, lost his job, and she seems from then to have begun considering painting professionally full-time.


Mary Beale (British 1633-1699) The Young BacchusMary Beale (British 1633-1699) The Young Bacchus, 1660s, 65.4 x 55.7 cm
Kindly lent by the West Suffolk Heritage Service


In 1670 she moved to London and opened a studio on Pall Mall. Her rates were competitive, compared to male artists like Sir Peter Lely - what we might today call a gender pay gap - and she was immediately successful. Thanks to a healthy demand for pleasingly colourful portraits, Beale had no shortage of sitters, from the aristocracy down. She carried on painting professionally until the 1690s. She excelled particularly in painting children, and brought to her portraits a greater sensitivity than most male artists. If you want to see anything close to a smile in British 17th Century portraits, you will find them in Beale’s works.

Unusually for the time, Beale advocated equality between husband and wife in marriage. Despite the Bible’s teaching that women should be subservient to their husbands, Beale believed that iif a husband and wife enjoyed a particularly close friendship - rare, in an era of arranged marriages -  then women could reach equal status with their husbands. She wrote in her Discourse on Friendship that 'Friendship is the nearest Union which distinct Souls are capable of…’


Mary Beale, Portrait of a GentlemanMary Beale, Portrait of a Gentleman, possibly Samuel Woodforde (1636-1700)
early 1660s, oil on canvas, 76.2 x 63.5 cm. Private Collection, Scotland


A well known 17th century female painter, the works by Mary Beale presented in ‘Bright Souls: The Forgotten Story of Britain’s First Female Artists’ sought to offer a brief assessment of her work in context with that of Joan Carlile and Anne Killigrew.




“Bright Souls”: The Forgotten Story of Britain’s First Female Artists 

An exhibition presenting the lost art and forgotten story of Britain’s pioneering female painters. 
 July 2019  
Lyon & Turnbull, 22 Connaught Street, London, W2 2AF  
0207 930 9115 | 


Image (at top): MARY BEALE (BRITISH 1633 – 1699) | Self Portrait, The artist holding a palette | Oil on canvas, 45.7 x 38.1cm | Courtesy of West Suffolk Heritage Service



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