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Compton Verney’s new painted ladies are more about vice than virtue

10 July 2023

Last month, a recently rediscovered work by an unknown artist, Allegorical Painting of Two Ladies (c. 1650), was purchased by Compton Verney in Warwickshire. Its acquisition came after the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest judged the painting to have ‘outstanding significance’ for studies of race and gender in 17th-century Britain and put in place a temporary ban on its being exported. The news was greeted with enthusiasm across the media, which hailed the apparent equality of the sitters. But we should be wary of assuming that this is an entirely positive parity: this is a moralising image that speaks of sin, of vanity, of wantonness.

The painting presents two expensively-dressed women side by side, pearls around their necks and hair coiffed in the latest fashions. They are mirror images of each other. One is a woman of colour; the other is white. The woman of colour wags her finger at her counterpart in a gesture both warning and playful. Above her head reads an inscription: ‘I black with white bespott y white with blacke this evil proceeds from thy proud hart then take her: Devill.’

These are not portraits of real people. Instead, both women are allegories of vanity, their faces ‘bespott’ with patches shaped like stars and crescent moons. Made of imported silk, velvet or Spanish leather, and often heavily perfumed with exotic fragrances, beauty patches became popular at the beginning of the 17th century and were used well into the 18th century. Such patches originated in France, where they were satirically nicknamed mooches (flies). Their placement symbolised various meanings: at the corner of your eye represented ‘passion’, for instance, while a patch at the centre of the forehead meant you were ‘majestic’.

Over time, these patches became more elaborate. The Gentlewoman’s Companion (1675) describes patches ‘cut out into little Moons, Suns, Stars, Castles, Birds, Beasts, and Fishes of all sorts, so that their Faces may be properly termed a Landscape of living Creatures’. An image in a 1650 tract shows a woman with a whole carriage and horses on her forehead.

Beauty patches – including one shaped as a carriage and horses – as seen in Anthropometamorphosis: Man Transform’d, or the Artificial Changling (1650), John Bulwer. Photo: Wellcome Collection

They were sometimes called ‘the mark of Venus’, named after the goddess whose beauty was accentuated by a single blemish: a black facial mole that brought the perfection of her features into greater relief. For women emulating the goddess, such patches could also hide pimples or scars. This use made patches objects of fear for Puritan Englishmen. Dissembling was devilish behaviour, and women who sought to beautify themselves were foul temptresses. God had created you ‘warts and all’, as Cromwell put it; to ‘correct’ your features was thus a kind of blasphemy. That patches were a French fashion made them even more threatening: foreign, Catholic and carrying associations of syphilis, the ‘French pox’, which left facial lesions that they could hide.

Though most readily associated with women of the night, the fashion was popular in all ranks of society. Its adherents included noblemen: when Henry Bennet, Earl of Arlington, was wounded in the civil war, he took to wearing a large black patch over an unsightly scar on his nose. Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well (1623) has Bertram return from war ‘with a patch of / velvet on’s face: whether there be a scar under’t or no, the velvet knows’. The patch could cover all manner of sins.

Allegorical Painting of Two Ladies (detail; c. 1650), unknown artist. Photo: Compton Verney

But it was women who came under attack for wearing patches. In 1650, the approximate date of the Allegorical Painting, Parliament brought forth an act to ban ‘the vice of painting and wearing black patches, and immodest dress of women’. The bill was rejected, but its enforcers were a vocal minority. It was from this context that the painting emerged. In an echo of the painting’s inscription, a 1662 tract titled A Wonder of Wonders, of a Metamorphosis of Fair Faces voluntarily transformed into foul Visages, or an Invective against black-spotted Faces, assured readers that:

Hell gate is open day and night
For such as in black-spots delight; If pride their faces spotted make,
For pride then hell their souls will take.
Black spots and patches in the face to sober women bring disgrace;
Lewd harlots by such spots are known.

There are also contemporary visual parallels. John Bulwer’s woodcut-illustrated book Anthropometamorphosis: Man Transform’d: or, the Artificiall Changling (1650) claimed that ‘our ladies have lately entertained a vaine custome of spotting their Faces […] this is as odious and as senselesse an affectation as ever was used by any Barbarous Nation in the world’; the accompanying image has striking similarities to our painting. But where the accompanying illustration depicts the black woman with hideous racial stereotyping and positions her subserviently beneath her white counterpart, the women in this painting look out at us as equals – equal height, equal dress, equal gazes – which is unexpected in a painting from this period. This suggests that it was not too much of a leap for people in 1650s England to imagine an expensively dressed woman of colour on the same footing as a white woman.

Allegorical Painting of Two Ladies (c. 1650), unknown artist. Photo: Compton Verney

But we should tread carefully before assuming that this is an altogether positive depiction of equality: the women are embodiments of vanity and sin, poised to be taken by the Devil. These women are embracing the ‘foreign’, both in terms of the colour of their skin and their embrace of the French fashion for patching.

There is so much more to be discovered. In 1949, the painting’s then-owner Lord Tyrell-Kenyon described it as ‘a curious picture which has hung here for many years, but of which I know of no real explanation’. The work will be restored and researched at the Yale Center for British Art before going on display at Compton Verney. It will be fascinating to watch as its secrets are revealed.