Collections › MESDA Collection › Mary (Ross) Beale

Mary (Ross) Beale

Wollaston, John __Attributed to
Place Made:
Charleston South Carolina United States of America
Date Made:
watercolor on ivory –glass –brass
HOA: 1 3/4; WOA: 1 5/16
Accession Number:
SITTER: Mary (Ross) Beale (d.1771) was the daughter of William and Anne (Fuller) Ross. Her father was a merchant who emigrated from Scotland in the 1730s; her mother’s family were early planters along the Ashley River. In 1744, just a year after their marriage, the family moved to Brunswick, North Carolina, where William Ross was appointed Inspector General of the Port. Anne Ross died in childbirth in 1747 and William married the widow of Edward Moseley. Is is not clear whether Mary remained in North Carolina with her father and stepmother, or lived along the Ashley River in one of the many properties owned by her mother’s relatives. Following her father’s death in 1760 Mary was left in the care of her great-uncle, John Drayton of Drayton Hall. The Drayton Hall archives include Drayton’s account book recording expenses for young Mary’s education, music lessons, and fine clothing.

Mary’s marriage to John Beale (1730-1771) in 1762 situated her on East Bay Street near the city’s fashionable center. She died a few days after the birth of a daughter, Mary Hannah, on November 29, 1771.

ARTIST: John Wollaston (active 1733-1767) was an English artist who worked in the American Colonies in the decades preceding the American Revolution. His father, also John Wollaston (d.1749), was also a portrait painter. In addition to presumably studying with his father, Wollaston also received training from Joseph van Aken (d.1749), a painter who specialized in the depiction of fabrics in the paintings of others, include Allan Ramsay (1713-1784). Wollaston’s earliest documented painting is of the evangelist George Whitfield (1714-1770) painted in London about 1742 and in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London (NPG UK 131).

In 1749 Wollaston crossed the Atlantic and landed in New York where he began painting portraits in the fashionable London style. In 1752 he left New York for Philadelphia, and the following year he set up his easel in Annapolis. He spent about two years in Maryland and another two years in Virginia, completing about one hundred and twenty portraits. By the end of the decade he had returned to Philadelphia.

Wollaston arrived in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1765, probably after a period painting in the Caribbean Colonies. Painting in Charleston had been dominated to that point by the work of Jeremiah Theus (1716-1774); Wollaston’s arrival breathed new life into the city’s portraiture.

Wollaston was prolific, completing upwards of two hundred portraits during his time in the Colonies. His work influenced a generation of American artists, including John Hesselius (1728-1778) and Benjamin West (1738-1820).

ATTRIBUTION: Once attributed to Jeremiah Theus (1716-1774), based on their very close relationship MESDA’s pair of full-sized oil portraits of the Beales (MESDA acc. 3049, 3050), the Beale miniatures are now thought to be a rare example of Wollaston’s experimentation with painting portrait miniatures.

RELATED WORKS: MESDA owns portraits of John Beale and his wife Mary (Ross) Beale as well as portrait miniatures thought to be by Wollaston (MESDA acc. 3049, 3050, 3809.1-2). MESDA also owns another work by Wollaston, a portrait of Daniel Ward (3351).

REFERENCES: “John Wollaston” in the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalog

Carolyn J. Weekley, “Painters and Paintings in the Early American South” (Williamsburg, Virginia: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and Yale University Press, 2013)

DESCRIPTION: Miniature on ivory; portrait of a woman with pearl necklace, consisting of four rows of pearls. She has pearls in her hair, and her hand rest in the center of her chest. Miniature encased. Inscribed on back.

Credit Line:
Gift of Frank L. Horton