Mary Beale discoveries at Tate Britain

May 16 2013

Image of Mary Beale discoveries at Tate Britain

Picture: Tate

I was pleased to see in The Independent that Tate Britain is emphasising the work of women artists in the new Walk Through British Art. As Chris Stephens, Tate's head of displays, says, 'it's an area where we have underachieved in recent years'. One could say the same of most UK museums, alas. 

Two newly discovered works by Mary Beale (one shown above) have now gone on show at Tate. They were bought in 2010, having been found in a Paris antiques shop. Tate Curator Tabitha Barber says of Beale:

“I think she’s remarkably important and very underrated. People don’t tend to know her now. She was commercially very popular at the time.”

Anne Killigrew is another female artist of the period who has recently come back into the public arena. You can see her striking classical scene Venus Attired by the Graces by Anne Killigrew (discovered, ahem, by Philip Mould & Co.), at Falmouth Art Gallery, while another fine work by her can now be seen at the Queen's Gallery, where her Portrait of James II is part of the In Fine Style exhibition. 

Update - apparently the frames are modern, but reconstruct the type described by Mary's husband, Charles, in his diary.

Update II - a reader writes:

We might talk of Kneller or Lely being "commercially very popular", but the Beales? They were constantly in debt, relying on handouts from well-wishers and that was even after Charles Beale's income from colourmaking was added to Mary's from portrait painting. They were economically vulnerable their whole lives, that was simply the reality of painters' lives back then. In 1671 Mary Beale's rate for a half length portrait was £10, whereas in the same year, Lely's was £20 for a head. In 1674 she painted fewer than 30 portraits: that is not the record of someone who was "very popular", commercially or otherwise.

Secondly, what does it say about our museums and art world now, that in order to "celebrate" a 17th century painter we must highlight their (spurious) commercial popularity?  The truth - that she struggled to make ends meet her entire life but, even so, persevered as a painter in a society that little understood women artists - is surely more interesting?

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