Lyon and Turnbull Launches “Bright Souls” Exhibition Focusing on Britain’s First Female Artists

The Carlile Family with Sir Justinian Isham in Richmond Park, ‘The Stag Hunt’, 1650s oil on canvas, 61 x 74 cm. Image courtesy of Lamport Hall Trustees, accession no.95.

Lyon and Turnbull, one of the oldest fine art and antiques auctioneers in the UK, will be launching an exhibition titled, “Bright Souls”: The Forgotten Story of Britain’s First Female Artists.The exhibition aims to showcase the successes of the nation’s very first, female artists in the 17th century –  an era when the identity of women remained confined to the domestic sphere and women themselves held limited rights. Opportunities for women were scarce and job titles were limited to roles such as bakers, embroiders, washerwomen and domestic servants.

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The female artists spotlighted in the exhibition, curated by historian Dr Bendor Grosvenor, are Joan Carlile, Mary Beale and Anne Killigrew. Joan Carlile was one of the first female artists to adopt the medium of oil paint in her artistic oeuvre, as seen in the painting below.

Mary Beale, Self-Portrait holding a Palette, c.1670 oil on canvas, 45.7 x 38.1 cm. Image courtesy of the West Suffolk Heritage Service, Moyses Hall Museum, Bury St Edmunds, accession no.1993.35

She was based in the London suburb of Petersham, living with her husband, before moving in 1653 to Covent Garden, the heart of the artistic community in 17th century London. Joan Carlile is well remembered by contemporaries for being Britain’s first professional female artist and similarly, Mary Beale as the most successful of her time, while Anne Killigrew is etched in the memories of art aficionados and experts for having the most tragic and short-lived career in the art world.

The Legacy of Anne Killigrew

Killigrew was encouraged by her father, Dr. Henry Killigrew, to pursue her artistic interests in poetry and painting; she originated from a family heavily influenced by the creative arts with her father and two uncles both being playwrights.  Her collection of poetry, later published by her father, incorporated biblical and Greek imagery and these motifs were mirrored in her paintings.

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Both her paintings and poetry reconciled nature with women, which many critics believed was her envisioning in her art an antithetical escapism to the era’s repressive patriarchy.

Anne Killigrew, Self-Portrait oil on canvas, 74.3 x 55.9 cm. Image courtesy of the Berkeley Will Trust, Berkeley Castle.

At the age of 25, Killigrew’s art, and poetry riddled with symbolic imagery, ended with her death from smallpox. Her death prompted the poet John Dryden to write an elegy reminding her audience of the unwavering legacy Anne Killigrew left behind. In The Pious Memory of the Accomplish’d Young Lady Mrs. Anne Killigrew (1686), Dryden describes her legacy as, “Still with a greater blaze she shone, And her bright soul broke out on ev’ry side.”

“Bright Souls” thus shines light on the careers of Carlile, Beale and Killigrew, whose unsigned works of art have long been credited to male artists such as Sir Peter Lely. In the trio’s artworks, the female subject of the 17thcentury is no longer resigned to the gaze and artistic hand of the male artist, and instead, the art works conceived in the midst of the English Civil War, smallpox endemic and bubonic plague, give an authentic representation of  what being female in 17th century Britain entailed.

Curator of “Bright Souls”, Dr Bendor Grosvenor underlined the importance of their legacy by asserting: “It’s such a shame these artists have been largely ignored by art history, not least because they were so good. For too long, our view of British art in the 17th Century has been dominated by male artists – it’s time to change that misconception.” 

The Carlile Family with Sir Justinian Isham in Richmond Park, ‘The Stag Hunt’, 1650s oil on canvas, 61 x 74 cm. Image courtesy of Lamport Hall Trustees, accession no.95.

“Bright Souls”: The Forgotten Story of Britain’s First Female Artists will be available to view at Lyon & Turnbull until the sixth of July.  For more information visit

Monday 24th June to Saturday 6th July 2019

Weekdays 10.30am to 5pm | Saturday 12 noon to 4pm

Lyon & Turnbull, 22 Connaught St, London, W2 2AF

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