- Mary Beale and Art’s Lost Laborers:Women Painter Stainers
Histories of seventeenth-century British art suggest that one, two, possibly three women were painters.1 Of those, only Mary Beale (1633–99) established an independent commercial studio, maintaining it successfully for more than twenty years without formal training, court patronage, or guild affiliation.2 Fellow portraitist Joan Carlile (d.1679) and miniaturist Susannah-Penelope Rosse (d.1700) painted professionally, enjoying some renown, but few of their paintings survive. Can this possibly represent the entire contribution of women to the artistic life of the metropolis? No, dozens of women were members of or apprenticed to the Company of Painter Stainers and their story will be explored herein.
Although other women painters earned money, only Beale is now represented by a large, attributed body of work including several self-portraits, printed poetry, and two manuscripts, one of which, Observations by MB in her painting of Apricots, is the first known text in English about the act of painting written [End Page 141] by a female artist.3 Her earliest surviving painting, and first known self-portrait, includes likenesses of her husband and son — creating a sophisticated, highly original female subversion of an accepted autobiographical portrait form — that of the (male) artist at home.4 One of Beale’s three adult homes still survives, making it the oldest known artist’s workplace in Britain, and hers is the only female self-portrait of the period on permanent display in a public institution, the National Portrait Gallery in London.5 There she sits, alone in her painted room, physically and historically on a par with a self-likeness by Sir Peter Lely (d.1680), the most influential portraitist of the Restoration. Experience shows, however, that public consciousness of Beale’s place in the history of British art and women’s work is still slight, the vast majority of her paintings remaining inaccessible in private collections and museum storage. What hope does Mary’s hitherto stubbornly low profile give us about the prospects for tracing fellow, but now hidden, female painters? It is a familiar cry — “Where are the women?” And back comes the familiar answer — “Not there”, “Too few”, “Insignificant” — implying that the recovery of women’s history is a numbers game or, perhaps worse, a subjective question of fame and the “quality” of their contribution. I suggest that our understanding of significance in relation to women’s working lives should be redefined to acknowledge, nay embrace, the small numbers of still visible practitioners as the tip of a once large but melting iceberg of early modern female achievement.
Thanks to an invaluable digitization of Cliff Webb’s transcription of the Register of Apprenticeship Bindings of the Worshipful Company of Painter Stainers, it is possible to glimpse at least some of the Company’s women during what could be termed the “long seventeenth century.”6 What emerges is — to the student of women’s history — a significant number of female apprentices indentured between 1666 and 1740. I have also identified in the same period at least forty-three [End Page 142] Painter Stainer “mistresses,” members of the guild who contracted apprentices. Ironically, these statistics may not include women who, like Beale and Sarah her later assistant, were involved in painterly work, fine, applied, or decorative, in Westminster and Middlesex, or outside the guild system. These newly quantified if unavoidably limited findings will be discussed in the second part of the essay. First I will summarize Mary Beale’s career and something of the context in which female mistresses and apprentices worked in Restoration London.
Mary Cradock was a city immigrant. She was born at Barrow, Suffolk, four miles west of Bury St Edmunds, the daughter of Dorothie (d.1644) and John Cradock (d.1652), minister of All Saints, the village church. John Cradock enjoyed a university education, admitted to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, as sizer to the Master, and leaving as Bachelor of Divinity in 1628. Left motherless at age ten, little is known of Mary’s early life, but the scholarship she later displayed suggests that she benefited from a humanist education.7 Her father is most likely...