The Lost Portrait of Mary Seacole & its Forgotten Artist

When I encountered her portrait for the first time I found myself  looking at a woman for whom till then there had been only one photographic image  – a small carte de visite from the late 1860s – covering the last 25 years of her life till her death in 1881. But there was no comparison between that photograph and this new iconic, authoritative portrait of Seacole at the height of her fame.  And, by some miracle, it had landed in my lap.


Mary Seacole: an Inspirational Figure

It is every historian and biographer’s enduring fantasy – particularly if there is a paucity of primary source material on their subject – to discover something new: a cache of letters, an unpublished work, or perhaps even better still, a portrait which, till then, no one had known existed.

I counted myself extremely lucky to be one of those who have experienced that magical, serendipitous moment the day that I held in my hands a lost image of the Jamaican nurse and doctress, Mary Seacole, a heroine of the Crimean War for her services to the sick and wounded, who has, in the last 30 years since her rediscovery, become an inspirational figure to many.

When I encountered her portrait for the first time I found myself  looking at a woman for whom till then there had been only one photographic image  – a small carte de visite from the late 1860s – covering the last 25 years of her life till her death in 1881. But there was no comparison between that photograph and this new iconic, authoritative portrait of Seacole at the height of her fame.  And, by some miracle, it had landed in my lap.

I had first discovered Mary Seacole when writing about her in my Encyclopedia of Women Social Reformers published in 2001. Information about her then was very patchy, but I had been captivated by the wonderful idiosyncratic narrative voice of her memoir and had found her feistiness and indomitable spirit inspiring. I decided to start researching her biography even though I had no publishing deal. Soon after, I discovered that thing all biographers dread: someone else had got there first. I was disconsolate, but, compelled to continue filling in some of the many huge gaps in Mary’s life story, I carried on regardless, as and when time permitted.

I needed the help of experts, especially military specialists on the Crimean War, in order to progress my research and began corresponding with members of the Crimean War Research Society and the Orders and Medals Research Society. It was a member of the OMRS who contacted me out of the blue with the Jpeg asking me, as someone who had a specialist interest in Mary Seacole, if I could identify her as the sitter for a portrait that had recently come to light.

I’ll never forget the excitement and the sheer shock when I opened that JPeg. For there, on the computer screen, was the face of the mature, dignified Mary Seacole. With her head held high, proudly displaying the emblem of her Creole identity – a red neckerchief – and wearing a set of three miniature medals – the British Crimea; the Turkish Medjidie and the French Legion of Honour – how could it be anyone else but her?

© National Portrait Gallery, London

From a ‘posh boot sale’ to the National Portrait Gallery…

On enquiring where the portrait had turned up and who had it, I was told that it had been bought by an art dealer ‘somewhere in Oxfordshire’. I knew I had to go and see him and ask if there was any way he would sell me the painting, for right from the moment I saw it, I felt absolutely compelled to make sure that it did not disappear into some air-conditioned collector’s vault or a faraway US repository. Mary had been so proud to be a British subject; she had served this nation during the Crimean War and there seemed only one true and fitting place for her – in London, in the Crimean War Room of the National Portrait Gallery alongside the other famous personalities of that war such as Florence Nightingale.

It took a long and difficult six-month process to finally secure the portrait. It transpired that it had originally been part of an assortment of things from a deceased person’s house sold at ‘a posh boot sale in Burford’ in the Cotswolds. A local dealer bought it in a job lot and then put it in a local auction where it was bought by the present vendor. At the time, I was a single parent, living a very perilous existence as a freelancer and raising the money was not easy. But eventually, one Sunday in early June 2004, I drove over to Warwickshire to collect Mary and brought her home.

Meanwhile, I tried hard to find out what I could about the painting and its artist. Although Mary was not named as the sitter (what might have been an identifying label on the back had long since been removed), the portrait was signed ‘A. C. Challen, 1869’. Of the painting’s provenance, there was frustratingly little to go on. The man I bought the painting from had no idea who the deceased person had been and what put the lid on all hopes of tracking backwards to the original owner was that, when it was sold at Burford, the portrait had actually not been visible. Nobody knew it was there because, painted on board, it had been used, turned face in, to back a print of some kind. The original dealer had noticed something odd – the Challen signature and date on the back – and had unsealed the frame and discovered the portrait hidden behind the print.

So how and when had it happened that Mary Seacole’s portrait – perhaps considered unfashionable or even undesirable to be hung on somebody’s wall in the changing social and racial climate of late 19th century Britain – had effectively been discarded by its owners? How long had it been lost to view in this way? How had it wended its way from London, where I now know it was painted, to Oxfordshire? The questions were endless and the chance of answering any of them unlikely.

Soon afterwards, I took the painting to Peter Funnell, Curator of Nineteenth-Century Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, for his opinion. The portrait was subsequently examined by a specialist and pigment tests and X-rays were taken. Much to our collective relief the tests confirmed the dating – which meant the portrait was definitely contemporaneous and not painted posthumously. In January 2005, the year of Mary’s bicentenary, I unveiled it at the National Portrait Gallery where I had placed it on permanent loan.

But at that time the NPG, despite the resources of its wonderful reference library, could tell me absolutely nothing about the artist A. C. Challen; for they had no record, anywhere, of any other paintings by him. Luckily, genealogy had always been another great passion of mine. Knowing where to look, I started searching and eventually found my man. There he was on the 1881 census: Albert Charles Challen, born Islington 8 October 1847, living at 5 Penford Street, Camberwell with his parents and siblings. And better still: under the heading ‘profession’, was the magic word – ‘artist’. But when I searched the Society of Genealogists’ library and its family name collections, the Victorian trade directories and reference sources on artists, as well as checking with the Royal Academy and other art schools, I drew a complete blank. It was as though Albert Charles Challen had never existed.

It was as though the artist had never existed…

Yet, here was a young man, who, at the age of 22, had unknowingly painted what I feel has now become the defining image of one of the most fascinating black women in 19th-century history. One thing was clear however: this was no expensive studio portrait. For by the time of the 1871 census, two years after the portrait was painted, Albert Challen was living in Hammersmith and listed as being an ‘art student’ studying painting, which suggests that if he was at art college in 1869, the portrait was painted as a student practice piece. Either that, or had it been done before Challen had even begun his art school training. Between 1867 and her death in 1881 Mary Seacole seems to have lived in and around the Marylebone and Paddington areas. It strikes me that Albert Challen must either have personally known her, or had lived near her and known of her lingering celebrity, 13 years after the Crimean War, in order to ask her to sit for him.

But did the portrait remain in the Challen family after it was painted or did Mary Seacole herself purchase it? And if so, where did it end up after Mary’s death? She did not mention it in her will, though she made reference there to most of her important valuables. Since beginning my research on the portrait in 2005, I have made some progress with the Challen genealogy and now am convinced that the painting stayed in the Challen family. Thanks to a chance survival of a single manuscript letter written by Mary to the Challens, there is now confirmation that Albert Charles Challen submitted the portrait to the Royal Academy summer exhibition the year he painted it, 1869. It was rejected.

So far I haven’t come across another portrait by Albert Challen but I have at least traced the short, sad trajectory of his life. And here is the most poignant coincidence of all. He died, unmarried, on 1 September 1881 at his home in Camberwell, of TB – only four and a half months after Mary Seacole (who had died in Paddington that May). After 1881, all three: Challen, Mary and the portrait were, together, lost to history.

Mary Seacole’s portrait won’t return to my wall again. She is where she belongs now. In January 2009 I agreed to sell the portrait to the National Portrait Gallery. Mary now belongs to the nation, as an integral part of our black British heritage. There is for me in this tale a wonderful sense of symmetry: I rescued Mary’s portrait in 2004 and, at a time later when I was experiencing great financial difficulty, she looked after me. Even if I am never able to solve the many puzzles about her life and the painting’s provenance, at least she’s there, at the NPG for everyone to see, now complemented by her statue in the grounds of St Thomas’s Hospital across Waterloo Bridge.

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