Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Preserving the World in Paint - Women Artists of the Stuart Period

by Deborah Swift

The story of  The Lady’s Slipper is a story about a rare wild flower, but it is also the story of the 17th century artist who wished to capture its unique beauty in paint.

When researching the heroine of my novel I looked to female artists of the seventeenth century, especially those who painted flowers and the natural world. Unsurprisingly not many are documented, but here I give you just a taste of three extraordinary women who really lived, and one imaginary artist who only lives between the pages of my novel. Can you spot the imaginary artist amongst the real ones?

Maria Sybilla Merian (1647-1717)
Maria seemed to be an infant prodigy and Maria’s step-father, who was also a painter, doted on her, predicting that she would increase the fame of the Merian family name; so, apparently, did her half-brothers Matthäus and Caspar, twenty years her senior. She studied flowers, and more importantly - insects, keeping her own live specimens, and often travelling abroad in search of more specimens to draw. In her time, it was very unusual that someone would be genuinely interested in insects, which had a bad reputation and were colloquially called "beasts of the Devil." She described the life cycles of 186 insect species, amassing evidence that contradicted the contemporary notion that insects were "born of mud" by some sort of spontaneous generation.

Just one of Merian’s superb paintings
of pomegranates, insects and butterflies

Alice Ibbetson (1635 - 1701)

Alice was an English watercolourist whose studies of natural forms were some of the earliest annotated studies of medicinal herbs and flowers. Brought up by her botanist father John Ibbetson, who built his renowned Physic Garden with the help of John Tradescant, her work was collected by wealthy patrons including Sir John Fairfax. Unfortunately her early studies of flowers and fruit were lost when Parliamentary troops fired her home during the English Civil War, and the family were forced to flee for their lives. John Ibbetson’s notes survive however, and are much influenced by the herbals of Nicholas Culpeper. Ibbetson’s early life was beset by tragedy, but later she made her home in New Hampshire where she continued to record native medicinal flora, some for the first time.
A page from Alice Ibbetson’s notebook. Her flower
paintings were much admired for their fluidity of line.

Mary Beale (1633 – 1699)

Mary Beale was the first fully professional woman artist in England. Her husband Charles even left his job as a clerk to help Mary prepare her canvases and mix her paints. He experimented with pigments and became an expert in the field. She quickly made enough from the business to support her family, including her sons Bartholomew and Charles (later an admired society miniaturist). While she painted, Charles would write up detailed notebooks in which he customarily referred to his wife as 'Dearest Heart' and described the sittings, the sitters and his own technical discoveries. The majority of his notes have been lost, but those for the years 1677 and 1681 survive in the archives of the Bodleian Library at Oxford and the National Portrait Gallery. His notebook of 1677 details a busy year: 83 commissions, bringing in earnings of £429. During the 1660s, when the plague ravaged London, Beale moved her home and workplace out of the city to the safety of Allbrook Farmhouse.

Nell Gwyl (Nell Gwyn) by Mary Beale. I can definitely see
from this painting why she would attract the notice of the King!

Louise Moillon (1610–1696) was one of seven children. Her father was the landscape and portrait painter Nicolas Moillon, but he died when she was an infant, and her mother when she was only twenty. Her mother’s inventory of possessions included a series of paintings on wooden panels by her daughter Louise, so it would appear that Louise showed talent from an early age. The high esteem in which her work was held is demonstrated by the fact that in 1639 Charles I of England had five still life pieces by the artist, framed in pear wood and ebony. Mouillon’s work was admired for its lifelike quality but also for its restrained stillness.

Bowl of Plums by Louise Moillon


I hope you enjoyed the pictures. An earlier version of this post appeared here in 2010.
Twitter @swiftstory


  1. I know which is fictional, but I shan't say! Perhaps at some point, Deborah will.

  2. Love this post! I hadn't heard of THE LADY'S SLIPPER, but it's exactly my kind of book. I can't wait to read it. :)


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