In 1681, a year in which a great deal is known about Mary Beale due to the survival of her husband's notebook (Heinz Archive, National Portrait Gallery), it is recorded that she undertook several paintings for the purpose of 'study & improvement'. This portrait study is very possibly an example of such a work.
In the notebook, really an annotated almanac, Charles Beale (1631-1705) lists his wife's activities for each day, detailing her commissioned portraits as well as the experimental studies. For the latter, he identifies the sitters and, in most cases, their poses and tracks the progress of each work from one sitting to the next, paying particular attention if a novel technique had been used. It becomes clear that Mary Beale's purpose in carrying out the studies, as well as to develop her skill, was to test out, in conjunction with her husband, various painting methods. Charles Beale's interest in the technical aspect of painting is known to date back to at least 1647, when he began a journal entitled Experimental Secrets found out in the way of Painting (Glasgow University Library). This, as well as his notebooks of 1677 (Bodleian Library, Oxford) and 1681, are full of notes relating to his trials in manufacturing expensive pigments, his experiments in priming canvases and his efforts to perfect procedures such as the quick-drying of paint layers. It was this aspect of the painting studio that Charles oversaw, a business which was a collaborative partnership between husband and wife. Together they sought to improve the studio's efficiency, through perfecting procedures that would produce good results at a lower cost.
The portraits executed for study were painted on a variety of supports - fine canvas, sacking, onion bag and bed ticking. Mary's models, apart from herself and her husband, were her son Charles, Kate Trioche (a studio assistant), Alice Woodforde (her godchild) and Katy Sandys, who were painted in a variety of informal poses. It is not possible to match this study with a particular reference in the 1681 notebook, although it is close to the description of Kate Trioche's portrait painted on 17 May, 'side face fint. up at once upon a hungry, fine Canvis, of the least Size but one with a hand in it', and also to a similar one of Alice Woodforde done on 27 May. The canvas used here is not 'fine' but it does seem to have been 'painted up at once', in other words in one session rather than the average four. This quick process was one that Mary and Charles were attempting to master. It could result in colours appearing muddy and opaque, as has happened to some extent in this work. Nevertheless, its immediacy and informality makes it, arguably, one of Mary Beale's most appealing works.
Tabitha Barber with Mary Bustin, Mary Beale: Portrait of a Seventeenth-Century Painter, her Family and her Studio, exhibition catalogue, Geffrye Museum 1999, p.53 and cat. 34, p.78, illustrated, p.52, in colour.