A 17th-Century Double Portrait of Black and White Women, Said to Be of ‘Outstanding Significance’ Will Remain in the U.K.

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A remarkably unique 17th-century double portrait depicting a Black and white woman side-by-side as equals will remain in the U.K., it was announced today. It is due to go on display for the public next year.

The painter of has not been identified, but the work has been dated to around 1650 and loosely attributed to the English School of that period. It surfaced at auction in 2021 and found a buyer who was planning to take the work overseas before the U.K. government temporarily barred its export in the hope of saving it for the nation instead.

It has now been acquired by the historic mansion Compton Verney for its art gallery in Warwickshire, England.

The two companions are shown with strange markings on their faces, which would have been recognizable to contemporary audiences as beauty patches. The practice dates back to Roman times and was often a way of covering up scars and blemishes. It is appears, however, that the moralistic painting is condemning the vanity of the women, as an inscription about their heads refers to the use of patches as a sin of pride.

The presentation of the Black woman as an adult who is not in a position of subservience but instead wears a similar style dress to her companion was highly unusual at this time. The painting will therefore also be an invaluable document for the study of race and gender in 17th-century England.

The U.K. was able to prevent the work from permanently leaving the country thanks to the judgement of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA), which advises the government on whether works are of national importance. They found the painting to be of “outstanding significance.”

“The painting will delight audiences and encourage debate about and research into race and gender during the period,” commented the chair of the committee Andrew Hochhauser KC in a press statement.   

Compton Verney purchased the work using £304,534 from its Collections Settlement and with the help of two grants: £154,600 ($196,000) from the National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF) and a further £50,000 ($64,000) from a V&A Purchase Grant Fund. It is scheduled to undergo conservation work with help from specialists at Yale.

 

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