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Portrait of Crimean War Nurse Mary Seacole Acquired by National Portrait Gallery
Mary Seacole by Albert Charles Challen, 1869. © National Portrait Gallery, London.

LONDON.- The only known painting of Mary Seacole, the black Victorian nurse regarded as one of the most significant figures to emerge from the Crimean War, is to remain at the National Portrait Gallery where it has been on loan since 2004. The iconic portrait has been bought for £130, 000 through a public appeal by the Gallery and a Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) grant of £96,200.

Painted by Albert Challen in 1869, the portrait - which was discovered in 2004 by its owner, the biographer, writer and historian, Helen Rappaport - shows Seacole wearing the three medals which she was awarded for her service.

Born in Jamaica (c.1805 - 1881), Seacole was a nurse, adventurer and writer whose bravery, compassion and determination mark her as an exceptional figure in Victorian society. She travelled independently to Balaklava where she and her business partner, Thomas Day, opened the British Hotel between the harbour and British Headquarters. It served as an officers' club, a canteen for troops and a base for her nursing activities. She remained in the Crimea until July 1856. She was a familiar figure to British newspaper readers through reports in The Times, Punch and elsewhere. Her autobiography, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, was published in 1857 and sold well.

Since the 1970s, the development of a Black and Asian historiography has given her a central place in black British history. In 2004, Seacole was voted Greatest Black Briton in an online poll ( As an inspirational figure in British history and with a growing reputation she has also begun to be regarded as an exemplary figure among all audiences regardless of ethnicity. With no formal training, nor from a wealthy middle-class background, Seacole overcame both racial and gender restrictions to establish herself as a notable humanitarian whose hands-on approach to nursing has become an inspiration to nurses today.

As part of the acquisition, the Gallery will be including the painting within a wider programme of activity for schools looking at other inspirational stories of British achievement.

Sandy Nairne, Director of the National Portrait Gallery, London, says: 'Mary Seacole is an inspiring figure and I am delighted that this painted portrait can now join the National Portrait Gallery Collection."'

Wesley Kerr, Chairman of the Heritage Lottery Fund Committee for London, says: 'This is a moving and powerful painting that brings to life the courage, compassion and determination of an important figure in British history. As a woman and as a West Indian of mixed race she broke many barriers to make a huge contribution to Victorian society. Mary Seacole was an inspirational figure and a great humanitarian. At HLF we are thrilled to award a grant to the National Portrait Gallery, enabling it to keep Challen's fine portrait of Seacole on permanent display for present and future generations.'

The Seacole portrait was discovered in July 2003 after being purchased at a boot sale at Burford, north Oxfordshire. It was concealed behind a framed print and then spotted by an eagle-eyed dealer who noticed an inscription on the back by the artist reading "ACC". He unsealed the frame and sold the picture at an auction in Warwickshire. Rappaport subsequently acquired the work and recognised the identity of the sitter immediately.

Mary Seacole by AC Challen will be on permanent public display at the National Portrait Gallery in Room 23.

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