Iconic Mary Seacole Portrait Purchased By The National Portrait Gallery

By Culture24 Staff | 15 December 2008
a portrait of a woman in side profile wearing a red scarfe. blue top and a trio of medals

Mary Seacole by Albert Challen (c) 1869. © NPG

A portrait of one of the most significant people to emerge from the Crimean War and an important figure in black British history has been permanently acquired by the National Portrait Gallery in London.

The portrait of Mary Seacole, the famous black Victorian nurse who travelled to the Crimea to tend wounded troops, originally came to light in 2004 after a dealer discovered it at a car boot sale, hidden behind a framed print.

Made by Albert Challen in 1869, the small portrait shows Seacole wearing the three medals that she was awarded for her service.

It was acquired and verified by the biographer, writer and historian Helen Rappaport who loaned it long-term to the NPG in 2004. Since then it has hung alongside Queen Victoria and the woman she is often compared to, Florence Nightingale.

Now, thanks to a grant of £96,200 from the Heritage Lottery Fund it is now in the Gallery’s permanent possession.

“This is a moving and powerful painting that brings to life the courage, compassion and determination of an important figure in British history,” said Wesley Kerr, Chairman of the Heritage Lottery Fund Committee for London.

Born in Kingston, Jamaica, to a Scottish soldier father and mixed race mother, Mary Seacole sailed to England when war broke out with Russia in 1854 and volunteered herself to those recruiting for Florence Nightingale’s nursing contingent. She was however refused interviews with the War Office, quite possibly because of her ethnicity.

Undeterred, she travelled to the Crimea at her own expense, opening ‘The British Hotel’ outside Balaklava. This served as a canteen for troops and a base for her daily ‘surgeries’ for attending to the sick and wounded. She became widely known to the troops throughout the Crimea as ‘Mother Seacole’ and was a familiar figure on the battlefield, taking food, drink and her nursing skills to the wounded and dying.

“As a woman and as a West Indian of mixed race she broke many barriers to make a huge contribution to Victorian society,” added Wesley Kerr. “Mary Seacole was an inspirational figure and a great humanitarian. At HLF we are thrilled to award a grant to the National Portrait Gallery, enabling it to keep Challen's fine portrait of Seacole on permanent display for present and future generations.”

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