Pioneer Women of the 17th Century

Today is International Women’s Day, so it’s the perfect time to showcase two of the 17th century’s most memorable female pioneers.

Portraitist Mary Beale (1633-1699) was not only a talented painter, but she turned her skills into a successful business, becoming the family bread-winner and earning the praise of Richard Gibson and Sir Peter Lely.  She also turned her hand to writing, penning a manuscript called “Discourse on Friendship”,  four poems, and even an instructional guide to painting apricots.

Beale, Mary, 1633-1699; Self Portrait
Self-Portrait, c.1675. © St Edmundsbury Museum

Margaret Lucas (1623?-1674) was the sister of Civil War royalist officers John and Charles Lucas of Colchester, and married William Cavendish, the Duke of Newcastle. An intelligent and inquisitive woman, Margaret is today known as a poet, a philosopher, essayist, and playwright, turning her mind to topics such as gender, power, the sciences and romantic fiction. She is believed to be one of the first writers in what we would now call the science-fiction genre.

Margaret Cavendish (nee Lucas), c.1665, by Sir Peter Lely


The Rope Dancer

During the 1660s, Londoners seeking daredevil entertainment could enjoy the acrobatic skills of a number of performance troupes, one of which included a ‘rope dancer’ named Jacob Hall, who had distinguished himself as a performer on the tight-rope.

Dobson, William, 1611-1646; Jacob Hall, Rope Dancer (active 1668-1683)
Jacob Hall, Rope Dancer (active 1668-1683), by a follower of William Dobson,
©Trinity College, University of Oxford

The shows promised dancing and vaulting on the ropes, with a variety of feats and activity and agility, including “doing of somersets [somersaults] and flipflaps, flying over thirty rapiers, and over several men’s heads, and also flying through several hoops.”

Mentioned in Samuel Pepys’ diary as boasting he had often fallen but never broken a limb, Hall was also a favourite of the Restoration court, with Charles II’s mistress, Lady Castlemain, the future Duchess of Cleveland, apparently falling in love with him after being neglected by the King.* He would be a regular visitor at her house, and received a salary for his favours.

He was at the peak of his fame in 1668, and would be memorialised in a number of late 17th century publications for ‘delighting London with his jumping’.

Source: Wikipedia

*Another narrator suggests the affair actually began at the encouragement of Charles himself, who considered the rope dancer a less embarrassing paramour for Lady Castlemain than Sir Henry Jermyn, whom he described as ‘the most ridiculous conqueror that ever was.’ I’d love to know more about that dispute!


Royal children?

This lovely pair are currently listed on an auction site together, with an attribution to Sir Godfrey Kneller. It is suggested they may be children of Charles II, namely the ill-fated James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth, and his half-sister, Charlotte Jemima Henrietta Maria.

The date is around 1660.


I don’t know whether or not the boy is indeed Monmouth, but I do love his dog!

Monmouth dog

There are close-up images on the auction site, including a couple of the odd shaped frames from the back.

View sale page


Exhibition update

I promised a reader I’d review the Charles I exhibition, which I was lucky enough to see on its opening day last Saturday. It has taken more than 350 years, but we are at last able to see for ourselves just why the loss of King Charles I’s art collection is so lamented. The Royal Academy and the Royal Collections Trust have put together a truly magnificent show, and no written review can really do justice to the effort that has gone into bringing these works together.

The cast-list for Charles’s collection includes many of the greatest names in art history. The 17th century is represented by, among others, Titian, Orazio and Artemesia Gentileschi,  Rubens, Mytens, Velasquez, and, of course, Charles’s favourite, Sir Anthony Van Dyck, whose works take up an impressive amount of wall-space. The great equestrian portraits of the King, brought together – possibly for the first time – convey the majesty and power Charles wanted his court painter to convey.

Also present, from the 15th and 16th centuries, are greats such as Titian, Mantegna,  Raphael, Tintoretto, Correggio, and Veronese.


For an extra special bonus to all the wonderful artworks, one room is dedicated to the huge tapestries created at the Mortlake tapestry factory on the banks of the River Thames in London.

As a representation of the greatest European artists, you’ll be hard pushed to see another of this scale and quality, so you have until April to make it to this one!


Opening next week…

A quick reminder that the long, LONG overdue exhibition of Charles I’s (mostly) reunited art collection opens next Saturday, 27th January, at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

In a nice parallel of the way King Charles’s agents travelled the continent to source and buy the Western world’s greatest artworks during the 17th century, curators from the Queen’s Gallery and the Royal Academy have spent two years travelling across Europe to persuade the great art institutions to send their paintings back to the UK on loan.

It is the first time the collection dispersed by Oliver Cromwell after the King’s death has ever been recreated, and it will surely be the last. Rubens, Titian and, of course, Van Dyck, are represented amongst the returnees, alongside pictures recovered by Charles II during the Restoration, which now form part of the Royal Collection.

The exhibition only runs until 15th April, so if you are anywhere near London in the next few months, don’t miss it!

Buy tickets

The Telegraph

Charlotte Stanley, Countess of Derby

In February 1644, Parliamentarian forces besieged Lathom House in Lancashire, one of the last remaining Royalist strongholds in the county.  The defence of the castle by its defiant mistress, Lady Stanley, become one of the famous events of the English Civil Wars, when for three months, the Countess, in the absence of her husband,  who was away defending the Isle of Man, repeatedly refused to surrender her home, and instead fortified the castle against the enemy.  The siege was broken when Royalist help arrived in May,  led by the King’s nephew, Prince Rupert.

She fled to the Isle of Man, but after her husband’s capture at the Battle of Worcester in 1651, and his subsequent beheading, she surrendered the island to her enemies, and in the words of an 18th century writer, became  “the last person in the three kingdoms, and in all their dependent dominions, who submitted to the victorious rebels”.

The below portrait of Lady Stanley is said to date from the 17th century,  and is attributed to a follower of Van Dyck. (source: ebay)


A woman of noble birth – the daughter of a French nobleman, and granddaughter of William I, Prince of Orange – the Countess would endure great trials following the war, with the execution of her husband, James Stanley, 7th Earl of Derby, leaving her widowed with 5 children, and a seemingly endless legal fight with Parliament over the seizure and dispersal of her estate. She claimed be ‘the only woman that ever was sequestered for acting on that side to which her husband adhered,” and complained she was being treated more severely than others for her “crazy life”.

James Stanley, Lord Strange, Later Seventh Earl of Derby, with his Wife, Charlotte, and their daughter, c. 1636, Anthony Van Dyck. ©The Frick Collection

Despite these struggles, Charlotte survived until 1664,  with Sir Peter Lely capturing a last image of her a few years before her death.

Charlotte,_Countess_of_Derby_by_Sir_Peter_Lely 1657
Portrait after Sir Peter Lely, based on a work of 1657. ©National Portrait Gallery, London

Richard Gibson (1615-1690)

Whenever people talk of miniaturists, the first names that jump to my mind are usually Samuel Cooper or Nicholas Hilliard, but I’ve been learning about another who flourished in the  17th century, born under the reign of James I, and enjoying a career that survived Charles I, Oliver Cromwell, and Charles II, before ending in the time of William and Mary at the turn of the next century.

Richard Gibson by Peter Lely, painted 1658, ©National Portrait Gallery, London

Known as “Dwarf Gibson”,  standing at just 3’10” tall,  Richard was a lifelong courtier, and also a talented artist who studied under Francis Cleyn,  director of design at the Mortlake Tapestry Works.¹   As something of a celebrity in the court of Charles I, he married one of Queen Henrietta Maria’s serving ladies, Anne Shepherd (also a dwarf),  who was given away by King Charles himself. Gibson was also the subject of poems by Andrew Marvell and Edmund Waller. Richard and Anne would have nine children, three of whom also became painters. The best known, daughter Susan, also painted miniatures.

In later years, Richard remained an important figure at Court, being appointed drawing-master to Princess Mary and Princess Anne, and travelling to the Netherlands with Mary on the occasion of her marriage to William of Orange.

Anne Shepherd 1638 vd
“Portrait of Mary Villiers, Duchess of Richmond and Lennox, with her dwarf Mrs. Gibson”, by Anthony Van Dyck, 1638. ©Los Angeles County Museum of Arts

While Richard and his wife appear in several large canvases by other hands, his own works were primarily miniature portraits, his technique “characterized by the thick pigment and parallel striations that give his work an impastoed quality”.² His sitters included the highest members of English Court and society.

Barbara Villiers
Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland (1640-1709)


Anne Hyde
Anne Hyde, Duchess of York (1637-1671)


Unknown gentleman by Gibson
An unknown gentleman


unknown woman by Gibson VandA

Unknown woman, perhaps Elizabeth Capel, Countess of Carnarvon

Unknown boy by Gibson
Unknown boy, ©V&A


¹) Cleyn is also said to have had a hand in training William Dobson, who was curiously claimed as the painter of a Cromwell portrait sold at a late 17th century auction, under the name “Dobson the Dwarf”. Clearly there was a bit of a mix up in attributions here, but as Royalist Dobson is unlikely to have ever painted Cromwell, and Gibson painted primarily miniatures, it’s doubtful the said painting had anything to do with either.

²) Richard Gibson, Grove Dictionary of Art

William Parker, 4th Baron Monteagle

With November 5th just around the corner, and early fireworks already being heard across the UK, I wanted to go back to the beginning of the 17th century and take a look at one of the central figures in the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

To summarise for those not familiar with this infamous event in British history, Lord Monteagle was an English peer and member of the House of Lords at the beginning of King James I’s reign. At a time when Catholicism was outlawed and Catholics persecuted for their faith, a plot was raised by a group of men to blow up the House and everyone in it, including the King. However, shortly before the gunpowder was due to be lit in the undercroft beneath, Lord Monteagle received an anonymous letter warning him of the threat, the plot was quickly unravelled and the conspirators hunted down and killed.


The question of who sent the letter has been debated ever since, with some suggesting he sent it himself in order to win favour with James, while others believe it came from his own brother in law, Francis Tresham, who was himself one of the conspirators.

Whoever sent the letter, for his actions in protecting the crown, Parker received rewards of money and land from the King. He continued to hold influence, despite his own lifelong Catholic connections, and became Baron Monteagle in 1618.  He died in 1622.

This portrait of Parker was painted in around 1615 by John de Critz.

Picture of the Day

Richard Boyle, 1st Earl of Burlington and 2nd Earl of Cork, ©National Portrait Gallery, London

Born in 1612 in County Cork, Ireland, Richard Boyle was an Anglo-Irish nobleman who served as Lord High Treasurer of Ireland. A committed Royalist during the English Civil Wars, he fought for the King until Charles’s defeat. He was fined by the Commonwealth for his allegiance, before continuing his support of the monarchy into the reign of Charles II.

The NPG says this picture is possibly after Van Dyck, and based on a work of c. 1640. It caught my eye because, as with the portrait of Sir William Temple (see blog entry Sept 13th 2017), it displays a simple elegance while using only limited colours or shades. Painted in mostly muted browns, it has a straightforward composition with no extraneous props or embellishments to distract from the sitter’s direct gaze.

Another portrait of Boyle, also after Van Dyck but this time by the artist Jonathan Richardson the elder, is at Knole, in Kent (National Trust, on loan from the trustees of the Sackville estate). It is dated after 1685.

Richard Boyle, 1st Earl of Burlington (1612 ¿ 1697/98) (after Van Dyck) by Jonathan Richardson the elder (London 1665 ¿ London 1745)

Dobsons reunited at Tate Britain

Great news from Tate Britain this week! For the next three years, the gallery will be hosting William Dobson’s earliest known self-portrait alongside his own portrait of second wife, Judith.


From at least the late 1700s, both portraits were hanging together at Howsham Hall, a stately home in Yorkshire. When the house and its contents were sold in 1948, the couple went their separate ways. They briefly came back together for the 1983 National Portrait Gallery exhibition of Dobson’s work, with Judith purchased by the Tate in 1992. William’s picture remained in private hands until it came up for auction last year, and although it was once again sold to a private collector, the current owner (in contrast to the previous one, who never lent it anywhere), has already shared it with viewers at the National Portrait Gallery, before moving it to the Tate for the new loan.

I’ll definitely be visiting the Tate soon, and look forward to seeing the Dobsons back together at last!  My only concern is that, last time I visited the gallery, specifically to see the artist’s wife, she was poorly displayed, high up on a wall with a shaft of light obscuring her face. Hopefully the curation will be better this time….

Judith was born Judith Sander, some time around 1609, in London. She became Dobson’s second wife in 1637, and their only surviving child, Katherine, was born in 1639.  Judith outlived her husband by a number of years, remarrying in 1648 and surviving until at least the Restoration of Charles II, when she was said to have discussed the King’s coronation outfit with antiquarian and friend, John Aubrey. It is not know when she died.

Tate are also planning a special display on Dobson next year. Hopefully they’ll have more details on that soon.

Portraits at the Tate


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