"Saved for the Nation" extremely rare 17th-century painting depicting Black female sitter alongside her white companion
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"Saved for the Nation" extremely rare 17th-century painting depicting Black female sitter alongside her white companion
This almost unique painting shows two women, one Black and one white, side by side, presented as companions and equals, wearing similar dress, hair and jewellery.



COMPTON VERNEY.- Allegorical Painting of Two Ladies, an English School work dating to around 1650 was at risk of permanently leaving the UK after being sold at auction in 2021, but now with generous support from the National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF) and V&A Purchase Grants, it will go on display at Compton Verney for the public to enjoy.

This almost unique painting shows two women, one Black and one white, side by side, presented as companions and equals, wearing similar dress, hair and jewellery. The portrayal of a Black female sitter is highly unusual in this period, especially in showing an adult rather than a child in a position of subservience, thereby inviting important debate about race and gender during the period.

Another remarkable aspect of the painting is the depiction of beauty patches on both the women. Although in vogue at the time, the painting appears to condemn wearing these “spots” as the inscription above the two women declares beauty patches to be a sin of pride, a widespread opinion in the 17th-century. This style of work gives the painting an affinity with popular woodcut prints at the time, making it clear the work is allegorical and associating it with satirical verse, pamphlets and sermons.

Following its sale at auction in 2021, the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA) agreed the work should remain the nation because of its “outstanding significance” to the study of race and gender in 17th century Britain. The recent resurfacing of the painting has generated new possibilities for exploring the early history of Black culture in Britain.

Thanks to grants of £154,600 from the NHMF and £50,000 V&A Purchase Grants Two Ladies will go on public display in the UK next year, allowing its complicated narratives to be widely studied and understood. The remainder of the £304,534 cost of the painting comes from the Compton Verney Collections Settlement.

The painting will now undergo conservation, before being unveiled in a display at Compton Verney in 2024.

Geraldine Collinge, Compton Verney CEO says: “We are absolutely delighted to be able to add this hugely important painting to the Compton Verney collection. We are also pleased to be able to work with our colleagues at Yale - their world-class conservation facilities and expertise will restore the work to the highest standard for UK display, along with providing further insight and greater understanding of the painting and its context.”

Dr Simon Thurley CBE, Chair of the National Heritage Memorial Fund, said: “We are delighted that the National Heritage Memorial Fund has been able to support the acquisition of this unique painting, and that it will become part of the collection at Compton Verney in perpetuity. This dual portrait provides great opportunities to enrich our understanding of race and gender in the 17th century. We look forward to hearing the outcomes of the research that will be undertaken at Yale and, after the conservation work, seeing the painting displayed at Compton Verney for the UK public to admire and enjoy.”

Andrew Hochhauser KC, Chair of the RCEWA, said: “The Committee and I are extremely pleased that Allegorical painting of Two Ladies from the English School from around 1650 has been saved for the nation and will be on display at Compton Verney. This anonymous mid-17th century painting is a great rarity: it shows two women with beauty patches, one black and one white, side by side, presented as companions and equals. The painting will delight audiences and encourage debate about and research into race and gender during the period.”










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