You will find a great many half length male portraits like this one on the walls of Cambridge colleges. Here we have the clergyman Benjamin Whichcote (1609-1683), a fellow of Emmanuel College, who became Provost of Kings College, Vice-Chancellor of the University and leader of a group of religious thinkers called the Cambridge Platonists. He lived through turbulent times, navigating his way through the political and religious upheavals of the English Civil War, the Interregnum and the Restoration. However what is unusual about this portrait is not the sitter but the artist. It was painted by Mary Beale (1633-1699), Britain’s first professional woman painter.
We could claim Mary Beale as a local girl. She was born about 9 miles east of Newmarket in Barrow, Suffolk, where her father was a clergyman and an amateur artist. Aged 18 she married Charles Beale, a miniaturist and artist’s colourman (a person who supplied and prepared artists’ paints) who encouraged her talent. Theirs seems to have been a harmonious, affirming and surprisingly modern relationship. In 1667, Mary wrote a “Discourse on Friendship” which argued for the equality of husband and wife in marriage, a radical concept for the time. A decade later Charles abandoned his personal ambitions in order to devote himself to organising and supporting the career of “My Dearest Heart”.
By the time she painted this portrait of Whichcote in 1682, Mary Beale was one of the most celebrated portraitists in London with a busy studio on Pall Mall and a clientele that included aristocrats, leading intellectuals and clergymen. The studio was a family affair. Charles ran the business, keeping notebooks that recorded sitters, payments, pigments and materials.Their two sons, Bartholomew and Charles, helped to paint backgrounds and drapery.
Mary Beale doesn’t flatter her sitter, stating once that "flattery & dissimulation... is a kind of mock friendship". Whichcote is painted with a long nose, bumpy chin and watchful eyes. From his collar hang two preaching bands which identify him as a member of the clergy. The trompe-l’oeil oval frame was a common device in seventeenth century portraiture which Mary may have learnt from her mentor Sir Peter Lely, court painter to Charles II.
There has been renewed interest Mary Beale’s work in recent years with several exhibitions and a biography but she was not the only woman artist to be working in Restoration London. Records show that there were over a hundred women who were members of the Company of Painter Stainers but Mary Beale was certainly the most prolific and thanks to her husband’s meticulous notebooks, her work is well documented. Almost three hundred years before women were admitted to Emmanuel College as students, her portraits in the college’s Long Gallery blaze a trail that other women would follow.
Mary Beale (1633-1699) Portrait of Benjamin Whichcote (1609-1683), 1682, oil on canvas, 73 x 61 cm, Long Gallery, Emmanuel College, Cambridge.
All posts written and researched by Sarah Burles, founder of Cambridge Art Tours. The 'Art Lover's Guide to Cambridge' was sent out weekly during the recent Covid 19 lockdown while Cambridge museums, libraries and colleges were closed.