Check Out This 17th Century Portrait By One of Britain's First Professional Female Painters

Joan Carlile, Portrait of an Unknown Lady, 1650-5. Via the Tate Britain.

As part of attempts to better represent women in the history of British art, the Tate Britain has acquired a rare 17th century portrait by Joan Carlile, one of the country’s earliest female professional painters. It’s now the museum’s oldest painting by a woman.

According to the New York Times, just ten of Carlile’s paintings have survived. “Carlile is thought to be the first British woman to become a professional painter and this is one of only 10 portraits known to be by her,” Tate Britain director Alex Farquharson explained in announcing the acquisition, according to the Guardian, but unfortunately we don’t know that much about her. The Telegraph says:

The daughter of one of the first keepers of the Royal Parks, Carlile worked in Covent Garden - then centre of the country’s artistic community - specialising in small scale, full length portraits, usually of women.

A list of contemporary English artists deemed worthy of note, published in 1658, records her as chief among only four female artists working in oil at the time.


Covent Garden in the mid 1600s must’ve been a real scene!

When it first resurfaced in 2014, the painting was in fact assumed to be the work of a man, according to the Telegraph.

When the painting was put up for auction in Salisbury, in December 2014, it was assumed by the auctioneers to have been painted by a male artist. It is thought the family that had owned the work for decades had also thought it to be the work of a man.

But Bendor Grosvenor, the art historian and presenter of BBC One’s Fake or Fortune?, recognised the style as being that of Carlile, particularly from her representation of the sweeping upright pose adopted by the unknown sitter in the portrait.


“When it was listed for auction the painting was thought to have been by a bloke, but I recognised it as Carlile’s from the sale notice as her style is quite recognisable if you know what it looks like,” Grosvenor told the Telegraph.

Titled “Portrait of an Unknown Lady,” the painting dates to sometime between 1650 and 1655. Here she is, up close and personal; she’ll go on display after some conservation work.

Joan Carlile, Portrait of an Unknown Lady, 1650-5. Via the Tate Britain.

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