Aphra Behn (1640 – 1689) 

Portrait by Mary Beale

A spy and playwright who wrote that she valued fame and recognition ‘as much as if she had been born a hero’. A prolific dramatist of the English Restoration, she was one of the first English professional female writers. Her poem ‘The Disappointment’ which was included in the Earl of Rochester’s ’Poems on Several Occasions’’ was about premature ejaculation from the woman’s perspective.

In 1666 Behn became attached to the Court, possibly through the influence of Thomas Culpepper and other associates of influence, where she was recruited as a political spy to Antwerp by Charles II. Her code name for her exploits is said to have been Astrea, a name under which she subsequently published much of her writings.

Aphra Behn died on 16 April 1689, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. Below the inscription on her tombstone read the words: “Here lies a Proof that Wit can never be / Defence enough against Mortality.” She was quoted as once stating that she had led a “life dedicated to pleasure and poetry.”

In Virginia Woolf’s reckoning, Behn’s total career is more important than any particular work it produced. Woolf wrote, "All women together, ought to let flowers fall upon the grave of Aphra Behn… for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.“


Mary Beale -  Sketch of the Artist’s Son, Bartholomew Beale (1660 ca)

Oil paint on paper

Whether these sketches are connected to the production of the Geffrye Museum portrait, or were simply executed at around the same time, is not known. They are painted in oil on paper, which seems to have been a feature of Beale’s working method in the early 1660s but is not known in her later career, when she made preparatory sketches in chalk on paper or in oil on canvas (see, for example, Portrait of a Young Girl c.1679–81). When this sketch was made, the Beale family was living in Hind Court, off Fleet Street in London, where Mary Beale’s husband, Charles, was employed as Deputy Clerk of the Patents Office. It is difficult to determine whether Beale had much of a commercial portrait practice at this date, but documents certainly record the production of portraits of family and friends. In her ‘painting room’, Beale had ‘pencills [sic.], brushes, goose & swan fitches’, as well as ‘quantities of primed paper to paint on’ (George Vertue, transcription of Charles Beale’s 1661 notebook, now lost, quoted in Barber 1999, p.16). [Tate:]

Mary Beale (c.1665). Mary Beale (English, 1633-1699). Oil on canvas. National Portrait Gallery. 

A painter working professionally from the mid-1650s, Beale produced numerous portraits, particularly of her family and friends, who included a number of prominent churchmen. Beale is shown holding an unframed canvas on which are sketch portraits of her two sons, Bartholomew (1656-1709) and Charles (1660-1714?).


Mary Beale  1632- 1699

Mary Beale was a 17th century British portrait artist and daughter of windowed painter John Cradock, who was a member of Painter-Stainer’s Company. She spent her youth surrounded by artists, including Robert Walker and Peter Lely. She moved to London when she was 18, after marrying Charles Beale who was also a painter. 

In London, Mary became a semi-professional portrait painter who worked from home. She began her career in Covent Garden but later moved to the infamous Fleet Street. In 1665, Mary and her family were forced to move from London to the country due to financial difficulties and the dangers of the Great Plague of London. She continued painting in the country, though she had fewer commissions in the more rural area. She was able to move back to London in 1670 and established a studio in Pall Mall. With her husband working as her assistant, mixing paints and keeping accounts, Mary began to experience true success. 

During her second stay in London, where she would spend the rest of her life, Mary’s circle of friends and influences grew. She became re-acquainted with Peter Lely. She was friends with prominent figures such as Gilbert Burnet and the Archbishop of Canterbury. After her death, Mary’s two sons both pursued art. 

Though Mary experience much commercial success during her lifetime, she is little known to modern people outside the art community. Recently, some of her work has been discovered and acquired by the Tate gallery in London. 

Portrait of the Artist’s Husband, Charles Beale in a Black Hat (c.1631-1705) 

By Mary Beale

“My Dearest & Most Indefatigable Heart”

This recently rediscovered work is one of Mary Beale’s most engaging portrayals of her husband Charles, and reveals a degree of informality rarely seen in British seventeenth century portraiture.

Mary’s portraits of her husband are not only important as works of quality that attest to her status as the most accomplished English female artist of the seventeenth century, but act as profound records of her radical attitude to femininity and the strong bond that existed between husband and wife. Mary Beale, nee Cradock, began her artistic career as an amateur in the 1650s. She started to paint professionally in the early 1670s, when, after escaping to Hampshire to avoid the plague, her family returned to London. Charles, whom she had married in 1652, no longer enjoyed the security of his post as deputy clerk of the patents office, and turned instead to supporting his wife by acting as her business manager.

In doing so, Charles was acting against all contemporary notions of married life. Religious, social and medical teaching stressed the secondary role to be played by women, whose place was determined forever by Eve’s original Sin. But Charles had no qualms about his position of apparent subservience. 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’). Mary and he believed strongly in the concept of equality between man and wife, as evidenced by Mary’s ‘Essay on Friendship’, written during the 1660s. She advocated equality between men and women in both friendship and marriage, for without equality, true friendship could not exist; ‘This being the perfection of friendship that it supposes its professors equall, laying aside all distance, & so leveling the ground, that neither hath therein the advantage of other.’ In marriage, she wrote, God had created Eve as ‘a wife and Friend but not a slave.’

Charles, it is clear, agreed with Mary, and threw himself into the work of supporting his wife. In the mid 1670s, Mary was able to earn the substantial sum of over £400 a year, in addition to the praise of contemporaries such as Peter Lely, whose works she was permitted to study and copy. Mary’s numerous portraits of Charles are thus a testament to the deep affection between them.