Not on display
This portrait in oil on canvas shows Charles Beale, the artist’s husband, standing against a dark background. He wears a silk brocade gown and rests his hand on a large leather-bound volume, the pose marking him as a learned virtuoso. It was a role he aspired to, evidence for which is in the yearly notebooks he kept which, as well as documenting his wife Mary Beale’s daily painting activities, also record the pictures they commissioned and owned, the prints he purchased, his visits to view – and his appreciation of – Sir Peter Lely’s collection of Old Master drawings, and his desire to translate from Italian the lives of major Renaissance artists.
The Beale painting studio, which from 1671 was ‘next to the Golden Ball’ in Pall Mall in central London, was a partnership between husband and wife. While Mary Beale painted, Charles provided practical support. He primed canvases, procured art supplies from merchants, manufactured expensive, high-end pigments such as red lake and ultramarine, and kept the books. Beale’s notebooks record his wife painting his portrait on many occasions. In some she was practising portrait poses; in others different painting supports were being tested, from fine linen to coarse canvas. Other painting experiments included trials in the drying properties of pigment layers and varnishes, the recipes for which were of Charles Beale’s devising. Mary Beale could also lavish a great deal of attention on her husband’s portraits. In 1677, for example, Charles noted with bashful pride how his ‘Dearest Heart’ had devoted nearly nine hours to finishing off his portrait, and in doing so had used some of the Indian lake he had made, supposedly reserved for ‘extraordinary occasions’ (Barber 1999, p.34).
Although this portrait, showing Charles Beale in later middle age, cannot be matched to a reference in any of the known notebooks, the painting support has a marked herringbone weave, suggesting perhaps that it was painted in the early 1680s, a period when it is known that the Beales were experimenting with this and other canvas supports. It is possible that the work is a pair to a self-portrait by Mary Beale of c.1681 (private collection), both pictures being of the same size, with the same plain brown background, painted on similar canvas and showing the sitters at a similar time of life. The highly skilled, direct observation of the face in this picture is typical of the portraits Mary Beale executed of family and friends. Her aim of capturing a true likeness, as well as a sense of the inner qualities of her sitters, is apparent in this affectionate, faithful portrayal of her husband, whom she regarded as an equal friend.
Elizabeth Walsh and Richard Jeffree, The Excellent Mrs Mary Beale, exhibition catalogue, Geffrye Museum, London 1975.
Tabitha Barber, Mary Beale, Portrait of a Seventeenth-Century Painter, her Family and Studio, exhibition catalogue, Geffrye Museum, London 1999.
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