Artist unknown, "British School Allegorical Painting of Two Ladies wearing Beauty Patches" (c.1650s), oil on canvas (image courtesy of UK.gov)

A ruling by the British government has placed a temporary ban on the export of a recently uncovered and highly unique 17th-century painting that features two female subjects of equal social class but different races. The, titled “Allegorical Painting of Two Ladies, English School,” is dated to around 1650 and was held by descent in the family of Tyrell-Kenyon, Barons Kenyon of Gredington. Recently, the painting sold at Trevanion, Fine Art and Antiques sale in June of 2021 for £220,000 (~$291,000), and is currently valued at £272,800 (~$360,900). However, because of its highly unusual subject matter and subsequent historical significance, Minister for Arts Stephen Parkinson has taken the suggestion of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA), and issued a hold on the export of the painting until March of 2022, in the hopes of finding a UK-based buyer for the work.

“This fascinating painting has so much to teach us about England in the 17th century, including in the important areas of race and gender, which rightly continue to attract attention and research today,” said Parkinson in a press release. “I hope a gallery or museum in the UK can be found to buy this painting for the nation, so that many more people can be part of the continuing research and discussion into it.”

The women in the painting are both dressed in glamorous, off-the-shoulder dresses and strands of pearls, and their faces are covered in scatterings of esoteric symbols that represent the fad of beauty patches, which many courtiers wore to cover scars from smallpox or other childhood afflictions. Although a popular trend at the time, the allegorical nature of the painting appears to lie in an inscription above the two women, which implicates wearing beauty patches as a sin of pride — a widespread opinion in the 17th century.

“This anonymous painting is a great rarity in British art, as a mid-seventeenth-century work that depicts a black woman and a white woman with equal status,” said RCEWA members Pippa Shirley and Christopher Baker in the statement. “It is not a portrait of real people, as far as we know, but the inscription reveals that it is in fact a sternly moralising picture that condemns the use of cosmetics, and specifically elaborate beauty patches, which were in vogue at the time.” One might observe that however radical the image may be, in terms of racial portraiture conventions, it still adheres to the age-old standard of telling women what to do with their bodies.

The committee made its recommendation on the grounds that the painting’s departure from the UK would be a misfortune because it is of outstanding significance to the study of race and gender in the 17th century.

“Although not distinguished artistically, its imagery relates in fascinating ways to contemporary stereotypes of women, fashion, and, through the juxtaposition of the figures, race,” said the statement from Shirley and Baker. “The fact that it has only recently emerged, and only one other related painting is known so far, and that it could be used to explore important aspects of black culture in seventeenth-century Britain, makes it particularly important that it remains in this country so that its meaning can be widely studied and understood.”

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Sarah Rose Sharp

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit —...