First woman painter's home is found

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The Independent Online

The home and studio of Britain's first professional woman painter has been rediscovered - boarded up, stripped of fittings and in danger of decay.

The home and studio of Britain's first professional woman painter has been rediscovered - boarded up, stripped of fittings and in danger of decay.

New research suggests that the house, Allbrook Farmhouse, near Eastleigh, Hampshire, once belonged to Mary Beale, a prominent portraitist who worked from the Restoration until her death in 1699.

It constitutes one of Britain's most significant art-historical treasures, being one of very few surviving studios of an artist from the pre-Georgian period.

Beale was unique for her time. A self-taught painter, the daughter of a Suffolk clergyman, she established a reputation in the London of Charles II for society and clerical portraits held to be as fine as that by illustrious contemporaries such as Sir Peter Lely and Godfrey Kneller. She was also ground-breaking in that she made a living in what was an exclusively male profession.

The link between Beale and Allbrook Farmhouse was first made by a BBC researcher, Elizabeth Walsh, more than 50 years ago, but was forgotten by the time some of her papers were lodged in the archives of the National Portrait Gallery. The significance of the house was once more brought to light when Helen Draper, a paintings conservator and Beale expert, examined Walsh's notes.

"Beale was the first British woman artist to support herself, as well as her husband, sons and household, by painting," says Ms Draper. "She was extraordinarily prolific."

In part to avoid plague in London, the Beales moved to Hampshire in 1665, buying Allbrook Farmhouse. They lived there for six years - a time, says Ms Draper, in which she refined her technique. Among friends who visited the Beales at Allbrook was Izaak Walton, author of The Compleat Angler.

"That the house was used by Beale as a studio was confirmed by its occupants in the 1950s, who found canvas-drying racks still in place in the dining-room," says Ms Draper. In 1671, the Beales returned to London to live in Pall Mall.

That Beale's name is not widely known may be down to the foibles of the art market and art academics. "Seventeenth-century portraitists often failed to sign paintings, and much of her best work was ascribed to men, while a great quantity of their poorer efforts were attributed to her," says Ms Draper.

Bought with its land in the Eighties by Eldridge Pope, the brewers, the Grade II listed house has stood empty for 16 years. Having carried out some repairs, Eldridge Pope secured consent for its conversion into a pub, but it remained unused. Last year, the brewers sold the house and land to a property-development company.

These days, visits are not encouraged, and it has suffered from the attention of thieves. "One night years back, a van pulled up and men went in," says one neighbour. "They took some things, including fireplaces." Among items stolen was the oak front door - one of the finest in England - carved with hearts and the date 1659.

According to Matthew Slocombe, of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, Allbrook faces a common dilemma. "It is far from unique for buildings of quality to lie vacant," he says. "If basic maintenance appears to have been carried out, there's nothing a council can do. Some sensitive use is bound to be better than leaving it empty."