This unrecorded oil study is one of Mary Beale’s earliest and most engaging portrayals of her husband, Charles (1632 – 1705), and was likely painted at the beginning of their marriage, when the artist first moved to London and was still developing her own distinctive style, though yet to become a professional portraitist. Reversing the traditional roles of man as artist and woman as muse, Mary here portrays her most important supporter, her beloved husband and father of her children, via tender, painterly passages that rank her equally amongst her better known male contemporaries.
Sporting a wispy moustache and flowing black hair, Charles looks beyond the close composition with glossy eyes and parted lips, as though in mid-conversation. Whilst his head is carefully observed and presented in lively motion, his clothing has been purposely left unfinished; this compositional style is reminiscent of the early, experimental ‘tronie’ studies by Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599 – 1641) and his master, Peter Paul Rubens (1577 – 1640), when they sketched, in oils, models ad vivum for use in larger finished pieces. The informal, bravura stylings of these Flemish masters – both incidentally having worked in London at different stages of their respective careers - were still very much favoured in English portraiture during the mid-to-late seventeenth century and would have proved familiar models for young artists looking to impress possible patrons from the previous generation.
The focussed, direct observation of the head in this portrait is typical of those the artist painted of her immediate family [Figs. 1 & 2]. These studies were generally painted in oils on paper with only the head finished and the bodies loosely defined using a dark background colour. Both sensitive and immediate, these studies, of which the present work is a particularly fine example, are among Beale’s most celebrated works. Her aim of painting a candid likeness, whether it was capturing her husband’s vitality or studying her son’s curious facial expressions, is consistent throughout her long career; indeed, Mary’s numerous portraits of Charles, in particular, are testament to the deep affection between them. It is within her very earliest works where her evident love for her subject is manifested in the most instinctive painterly manner.
Although this portrait study, showing Charles as a young man, cannot be matched to a reference in any of the surviving notebooks, the painting might loosely relate to an early family group portrait from circa 1663, which is kept at the Geffrye Museum, London [Fig. 3]. It represents an important moment in the family’s life when Charles was still the breadwinner for the household and Mary was a budding painter, mainly charged with looking after her two young sons, Bartholomew (1654 - 1698) and Charles the younger (1660 – 1714).
Mary Beale is renowned today for being the first professional women artists in British history. Amongst other near-contemporaries, including Joan Carlile (c.1606 – 1679), Beale stands alone in having supported her family solely through her portrait practice. Whilst she was not formally patronised by the court, she was closely associated with the leading court portraitist Sir Peter Lely (1618 – 1680), who was, after her husband, her most influential supporter. Beale is known to have visited Lely’s studio often to study his technique, even using twill sacking as a canvas to paint on, as provided by his workshop. Here she painted copies of his work, including small-scale versions, some of which she was asked to do by Lely himself.
Mary’s husband Charles, the subject of the present portrait study, was her most devoted champion and eventually, in effect, became her business and studio manager. The young couple had married in 1652 in her hometown of Barrow, Suffolk, where her father, John Craddock, had been Rector. They soon relocated to the Beale’s property in Walton-on-Thames after Mary became an orphan, only a few days after their wedding. It was to prove an exceptionally happy and successful union based on true affection and friendship as well as shared interests, though it began ominously; in 1654, their first son Bartholomew died in infancy and was buried in Walton. They subsequently moved to Covent Garden, where their second son, also named Bartholomew, was baptised in 1656. It is likely here where Mary’s interest in pursuing a career in painting was cultivated; having early exposure to professional artists through her father’s puritanical connections in Suffolk - such as the parliamentarian portraitist Robert Walker (1599 – 1658) who lived in Bury St Edmunds and likely provided rudimentary lessons to Craddock - she was probably taught the principles of painting by her father, who was an enthusiastic amateur painter and a member of the Painter Stainers’ Company in London.
Around the time this portrait study was executed, circa 1660, Charles took over his father’s post as Deputy Clerk of the Patent’s Office in London. With substantial accompanying lodgings at Hind Court on Fleet Street, Mary was able to establish her first painting room. Her early oil studies, such as the present painting, were evidently inspired by holdings from the - already considerable - familial art collection, which included works by Van Dyck, Rubens, and Lely. Her first patrons tended to be close friends who worked within the church or the law, their sittings appear to have been an integral part of the entertainment offered by the Beales and the sitters almost invariably stayed on for dinner with the family. Unfortunately, the momentum of her development was cut short by the Great Plague that swept London in 1665. Coupled with Charles losing his job in the civil service, the young family removed themselves to Otterbourne in Hampshire, where they remained for the rest of the decade.
Come 1670, the Beales were offered the chance to lease a newly-built house on Pall Mall by a distant relation. They seized the opportunity as they, rightly, predicted that wealthy new clients would also be moving to the area, which was situated opposite the fashionable St James’s Square. Finally incorporating herself as a professional portrait painter, she quickly became a more economical, and well-positioned option for those who could not yet afford to sit for Sir Peter Lely. Whilst formerly enjoying the role of patron to Lely, who likely painted the couple’s portrait some years before, the Beales entered a somewhat informal tutelage under the senior artist who would occasionally appraise Mary’s portraits and lend her his own paintings to study. Furthermore, they also learnt the business of selling her work as she was soon charging £10 for a three-quarter length portrait and £5 for a bust-length, thus quickly making Mary’s practice the sole source of income for the family.
Charles remained unemployed in the early years of their London return, but began intuitively assisting his wife in her rapidly expanding studio. Whilst Mary painted, Charles provided practical support, apparently having no qualms about his position of apparent subservience; indeed, it was a role he took on willingly, and not just because of his deep love for Mary (in his notebooks he referred to Mary as his ‘Dearest & Most Indefatigable Heart’) for he was a skilled assistant and manager. He became a deft colourman, supplying not only his wife’s palettes but other painters’ too. He also primed canvases, manufactured expensive pigments, particularly ultramarine, and kept the books. Charles Beale’s invaluable notebooks record his wife painting his portrait on many occasions. In some she was practising portrait poses, whilst in others different material 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. His goal was to produce the finest materials and methods, at the most effective cost, for Mary; this led to a most efficient, equal, and profitable partnership for the Beales.
By the mid-1670s, Mary was earning over £400 a year, enjoying the peak of her commercial success; in 1677 alone, she was commissioned to paint eighty-three individual portraits. As patronage from the gentry and nobility dwindled after the death of Lely in 1680, her later works were mostly portraits of close friends and family, affording her more time to experiment, paint more portraits of the clergy on a charitable basis, and continue her ongoing studies of her family. Her last years were spent in their house on Pall Mall and after her death in the autumn of 1699, she was buried in St James’s Church in Piccadilly.
In life and death, she has been highly praised: Sir Peter Lely apparently commented that she ‘worked with a wonderful body of colour, and was exceedingly industrious’, whilst one of her first biographers, Ellen C. Clayton, said of her in 1876 that “the most eminent personages respected Mrs. Beale as a talented artist, an irreproachable wife, and excellent mother.” George Vertue even wrote that Beale ‘was little inferior to any of her contemporaries, either for Colour, Strength, Force or Life.’ As the curator of the first exhibition dedicated to Mary Beale’s life and work, held in 1975, states: “…among the reasons for the almost total eclipse of her reputation in subsequent centuries must be countedthe male chauvinism of cataloguers and writers on art who invariably attributed her best pictures to other, male, painters.”
Whilst the early provenance of this head study is presently unknown, Beale’s oil sketches appear to have been regularly sold and, surprisingly, correctly catalogued, in job lots in the early 19th century. Remarkably, several batches from different sources were sold in 1822 alone: a singular portrait depicting ‘Mr. Beale’ was sold from the estate of the Regency miniaturist Richard Cosway RA (1742 – 1821) on 9th March; ‘four small heads’ from the collection of the 2nd Marquess of Bute were sold on 7th June; and several ‘Busts (in oil)’ by Mary Beale were sold at Sotheby’s on 19 December.
 Other recorded three-quarter lengths ‘in little’ include a self-portrait from c.1675, a portrait of her husband also from c.1675 and a Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland from c.1678.
 Whilst the majority of these have been lost, those for the years 1677 and 1681 survive and can now be found in the Bodleian Library, Oxford and the National Portrait Gallery Archives respectively. However, the contents of four others are available to us in part through the comments and transcripts recorded by George Vertue in his own ‘Notebooks’ which he collated later in the 18th century.
 Tragically her tomb, formerly located beneath the communion table, was destroyed during the London ‘Blitz’ in WWII.
 E.C. Clayton, English Female Artists, London 1876, pp. 44 – 45.