Vision of greatness

28th January 2005 at 00:00
The discovery of a rare portrait offers an insight into the appearance of pioneering nurse. Christina Zaba reports

A lost painting of Mary Seacole is on display at the National Portrait Gallery after being discovered in a car-boot sale.

The famous black nurse's outstanding work among British soldiers in the Crimean War was for many years overshadowed by that of her contemporary, Florence Nightingale. However, in recent years interest in her story, so long forgotten, has been growing. She was voted Greatest Black Briton in an online poll last year and a biography has recently been published. Now in the bicentenary year of her birth, there's a picture of Mary, too.

Painted in 1869 by London artist Albert Challen, the oil portrait is now on public display in Room 23 of the gallery, alongside Queen Victoria and Florence Nightingale.

Born of a Jamaican Creole mother and a Scottish father, Mary grew up among indomitable and independent women. Her mother ran a boarding house in Kingston, Jamaica, for invalid British soldiers travelling to and from Panama. She learned early on the principles of herbal and homeopathic medicine and nursing skills, as well as self-sufficient business practice.

When war broke out with Russia, Mary sailed for England with the intention of volunteering to nurse "her boys" in the Crimea, but neither the War Office nor Florence Nightingale would accept her.

Undeterred, she went to the Crimea, opened a "British Hotel" outside Balaklava, which supplied food and alcohol for soldiers, and ran daily surgeries for the sick and wounded, as well as taking food, drink and nursing out on to the battlefield. "Mother Seacole" became legendary among the soldiers.

However, the sudden end of the war left her bankrupt. Because she sold alcohol, Mary was not strictly respectable, and she didn't fit the newly minted middle-class image of Florence Nightingale nursing. Unlike the lady with the lamp, Mary never met Queen Victoria. She publicised her work by writing her memoirs.

She was buried obscurely and it wasn't until 1973 that her grave was restored.

Women's historian Helen Rappaport was researching Mary's story in 2001 when she received a jpeg of an obscure portrait that had been picked up by a dealer in a car-boot sale in Burford, Oxfordshire. "I knew immediately it was a picture of Mary," she says. "I nearly fell off my chair. It was a miracle." She bought the portrait for pound;850.

"I felt I'd rescued her,' says Helen. "She's emblematic of a whole swathe of lost history, and I was dreading that the portrait would disappear out of the country. I felt it was my duty to make sure it went back into the public domain.

"I'm convinced this is the defining image of Mary Seacole, and it's so important that it's on free and open access to children studying her at key stage 2. They seem to be better informed than their parents, if anything.

It's only right that they should be able to come and see this woman who did so much for Britain - a true patriot, an Everywoman."

* www.npg.org.uk

* www.100greatblackbritons.combiosmary_seacole.html

* www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.ukREseacole.htm

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