‘Highly unusual’: Lost 17th-century portrait of black and white women as equals sparks important debate

Portrait of Two Women Saved for the UK

A 17th-century painting titled Allegorical Painting of Two Ladies, depicting two women - one black and one white - as companions and equals, has been saved for the UK. This heroic act ensures the preservation of a significant piece for the study of race and gender in 17th-century Britain.

The painting criticizes the prevalent opinion at the time of using cosmetics to alter a person's natural appearance. Their faces are covered in beauty patches, which the painting's inscription condemns as a sin of pride. The portrayal of a black female sitter in a 1650s painting was highly unusual and invites important debate about race and gender during the period.

The painting was at risk of leaving the UK permanently after being auctioned in 2021. However, Compton Verney, an award-winning gallery in Warwickshire, has acquired it, ensuring its preservation and future accessibility to the public.

Significance of the Painting

The Allegorical Painting of Two Ladies visualizes early modern debates concerning the morality of cosmetics use, ideal beauty, and blackness. The painting also brings attention to issues of gender hierarchy, female agency, and attitudes towards race and ethnicity in the 17th century.

During a time of increasing global contact through trade and colonial expansion, the painting offers unique insights into these subjects. Its departure from the UK would have been a misfortune as it holds immense historical and cultural value.

Recognizing the painting's outstanding significance, the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest placed a temporary stop to its export, allowing a UK institution to acquire it. Compton Verney's acquisition ensures that the painting will be preserved, studied, and made accessible to the public.

Acquisition and Conservation

Compton Verney, an accredited museum and registered charity, has acquired the Allegorical Painting of Two Ladies for more than £300,000. The National Heritage Memorial Fund and the V&A purchase grants played a crucial role in the acquisition of this historic artwork.

Initially undervalued, the painting measuring 640 x 750mm sparked intense interest at auction. It will now undergo conservation and extensive study by the Yale Centre for British Art at Yale University to unravel the complex narrative depicted in the painting.

After conservation and research, the Allegorical Painting of Two Ladies will be put on public display at Compton Verney gallery in Warwickshire, aligning with the gallery's mission to showcase different ways of representing people in art and sparking conversations about inclusion and the untold stories of marginalized individuals.

Compton Verney: A Home for the Painting

Compton Verney is an award-winning gallery located in a Grade I-listed Georgian mansion surrounded by 120 acres of parkland designed by Lancelot 'Capability' Brown, an esteemed landscape architect of the 18th century.

As an accredited museum and registered charity, Compton Verney focuses on portraits and folk art, allowing for diverse representations of people and prompting discussions about who is included and excluded from art. The acquisition of the Allegorical Painting of Two Ladies aligns interestingly with the gallery's existing collections.

Geraldine Collinge, the CEO of Compton Verney, expressed enthusiasm for the acquisition, stating that the painting's portrayal of two women, one black and one white, sheds light on stories that were deliberately left untold. This resonates with the gallery's commitment to exploring the complexities of human experiences through art.


Dalya Alberge. (June 23, 2023). ‘Highly unusual’: lost 17th-century portrait of black and white women as equals saved for UK. www.theguardian.com.

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