Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Joan Carlile, England's First Professional Female Artist

Joan Palmer Carlile (buried 27 February 1679)

Not much is known about the life of Joan Palmer, who was the daughter of William Palmer, an official of the royal parks of St. James's and Spring Gardens (under James I), and his wife, a woman named Mary. 

Joan was likely born about the year 1606, and in 1626 she married the poet and playwright Lodowick Carlile (sometimes "Carlell" or "Carliell") who was, like her father, an official in the Royal Parks system, in his case keeper of the Great Forest in Richmond Park. He was also a courtier: gentleman of the bows for Charles I and a groom to the king and queen's privy chamber.

The Stag Hunt, by Joan Palmer Carlile--
Carlile, her husband, and two children (left)
are painted along with the family of Sir Justinian Isham,
in Richmond Park
While she had no formal training--or, at least, we do not know how she acquired the rudiments of painting technique--Carlile soon distinguished herself as an amateur painter.

Her work came somehow to the attention of King Charles I, and she seems to have begun her professional life as an artist by copying original Italian paintings and reproducing them as miniatures.

She and her "mentor," Sir Anthony Van Dyck, who must have provided her with some kind of encouragement, if not instruction, are known to have received an impressive gift from the king of ultramarine paint, said to be valued at £500.

While she may have begun as an untrained amateur copying the original work of others, in the early 1650s Carlile and her husband relocated from Richmond to Covent Garden, which was then a center of artistic production. (It is likely that Lodowick Carlile may have suffered loss of income during the civil wars and Commonwealth.)

In her recent essay on the artist, Jane Eade quotes from contemporary letters that suggest Joan Carlile was in need of money and attempting to earn a living through her painting: she "means to make use of her skill to some more advantage than hitherto she hath done," observes one friend of the Carliles, who also notes, in a subsequent letter that Carlile is hoping "to raise up some fortune for herself and children." According to the letter writer, she is "resolved there to use her skill for something more than empty fame."

Unfortunately, Carlile does not seem to have been entirely successful in earning enough to support her family, but she did earn some measure of recognition for herself as an artist. In his 1658 work on contemporary artistsGraphice, . . . Or the Most Excellent Art of Painting, Sir William Sanderson wrote briefly about Carlile. In a list of English "modern masters" whom he judged to be "not less worthy of fame" than any "foreign" painters, Sanderson included "that worthy artist, Mrs. Carlile," noting her excellence in "oil colors." 

She produced a number of portraits which seem to have been influenced by Van Dyck's court paintings. A relatively small number of these paintings are now identified as work by Carlile, including a portrait of Lady Dorothy Browne and her husband, Sir Thomas Browne, now in the National Portrait Gallery; a portrait of Elizabeth Murray, countess of Dysart and duchess of Lauderdale, in Thirlestane Castle; a portrait of Elizabeth Murray, countess of Dysart, with her husband (her first husband) and her sister, Margaret Murray, lady Maynard, National Trust, Ham House; and The Stag Hunt (reproduced above), Lamport Hall. (To view and learn more, I'll link you to the Art UK website here.)  

Carlile's Portrait of an unidentified woman,
wearing a white satin dress
In 2016, the Tate Britain acquired Portrait of an Unknown Lady. When this painting was first offered for sale at auction in 2014, it was assumed to be the work of a male artist and offered as such, but art historian Bendor Grosvenor (one of my current crushes--who doesn't love a smart, diffident, quietly funny man?) recognized the painting as Carlile's work: "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." (For The Telegraph's article on the acquisition of Carlile's work by the Tate, click here.)

Carlile is now recognized as the "first professional female painter" in England. (See Grosvenor's article on Carlile in Art History News, for example.)

In her will, Carlile refers to other works, now lost (or unrecognized as hers): "the princess in white satin" (which may be a version of the Portrait of an Unknown Lady--the unknown woman in the painting is wearing a dress of what looks like white satin) and "the little St. Katherine and the Mercury." So there may be more works emerging at some point. We can dream . . .  

The most accessible information for Carlile comes from the Historical Dictionary of British Women; you can access the entry by clicking here.

Update, 8 January 2019): I am very grateful to Jane Eade, Curator of the National Trust, London, for making available a copy of her "Rediscovering the 'worthy artiste Mrs. Carlile,'" The National Trust Historic Houses & Collections Annual 2018, ed. Christopher Rowell  (2018): 19-24. Her information about Carlile's efforts to earn a living through her art are most welcome--as is her careful comparison of several portraits of sitters wearing that same white satin dress!

One of Joan Carlile's miniatures (attributed),
possibly a portrait of Barbara Villiers,
recently auctioned by Christie's

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