Mary Beale specialized in painting small-scale copies of larger works by the great court artist Sir Peter Lely. Commissioned mostly by members of the nobility, from whom she would often borrow the original work; Mary spent as much time on these intricate studies as she did on her three-quarter length portraits, usually charging the same price for them. The portrait presented here is a reduced copy which relates to a double portrait by Lely of Southampton with his third wife, Lady Frances Seymour which is at Welbeck Abbey. This portrait was painted soon after Southampton was appointed Lord High Treasurer in September 1660.
There is much in this portrait to suggest the hand of Beale; the rich coloured drapery; the clear characterization; the modelling of the hands. Some finer detailing in the dark robes and the simply rendered background has been lost due to subsequent cleaning in the 19th century but it remains a striking work of the 17th century which captures on an intimate scale the glories of Restoration court portraiture. It compares favourably to other small portraits by Beale, such as Sir Thomas Isham and Charles II, (Philip Mould – Historical portraits).
Lord Southampton, having acceded to the earldom in 1624, at first, sided with the Parliamentary supporters leading up to the English Civil War, but upon his realisation of their leaders’ violence, became a loyal supporter of Charles I. Though remaining loyal to the deposed monarch, he still vied for peace, representing the king at several conferences. He was in London during the King’s trial and obtained permission to sit with his body at Whitehall the night after his execution. After the King’s death he retired into the country and declined to recognise Cromwell and his government. At the Restoration he was re-admitted to the Privy Council and created a Knight of the Garter. In September 1660 he was appointed to the office of Lord High Treasurer, a post he held until his death. He appears to have had a high sense of moral code, refusing to take advantage of his position to augment his own power and wealth, agreeing to a fixed salary with the King. Despite this his latter years in office resulted in a loss of spirit and purpose, when it became clear that it was beyond his power to reduce the corrupt influences prevalent at Court and, according to Earl Clarendon (1609-1674) “bring the expense of the court within the limits of the revenue”. Gilbert Burnet (1643-1715) described him as “a great Man in all respects, and brought very much Reputation to the King’s cause … a man of great sharpness of Judgement… of a nature much inclined to Melancholy … His person was of a small stature; his courage, as all his other faculties, very great”.
He married three times and had three daughters. His first wife was Rachel de Massue with whom he had Elizabeth, wife of Edward Noel, 1st Earl of Gainsborough and Rachel, wife of William Russell, Lord Russell. These daughters inherited all of their father’s property which then ultimately passed through the Russell’s to the 2nd Duke of Bedford. His second marriage was to Lady Elizabeth Leigh, daughter of Francis Leigh, 1st Earl of Chichester from whom he inherited the title Earl of Chichester on Leigh’s death. Their only child, Elizabeth would, firstly, marry Joceline Percy, 11th Earl of Northumberland and upon his death, secondly, Ralph Montagu, 1st Duke of Montagu. His third marriage was to Frances Seymour, the daughter of William Seymour, 2nd Duke of Somerset. He was the second of her three husbands and this late marriage remained childless.
Mary Beale (1633 – 1699) arguably became one of the most important portrait painters of 17th century England, and has been described as the first professional female English painter. Born in Barrow, Suffolk, the daughter of John Cradock, a Puritan rector, she married Charles Beale, a cloth merchant from London, in 1652, at the age of 18. Her father and her husband were both amateur painters, her father being a member of the Painter-Stainers’ Company. She became a semi-professional portrait painter in the 1650s and 1660s, working from her home, first in Covent Garden and later in Fleet Street and became well acquainted with the local artistic talents of Robert Walker and Peter Lely. However it was not until the 1670s when she established a studio in Pall Mall, that success really came to her; her husband working as her assistant, mixing her paints and keeping her accounts.