Exhibit of the Week: Mary Bean portrait

Portrait of Mary Bean in the Scarborough Collections.
Portrait of Mary Bean in the Scarborough Collections.

Somewhat reminiscent of the famous portrait of the Brontë sisters painted by their father Patrick, this 19th century painting portrays a woman called Mary Bean.

But where the three Brontë girls are shown in rather dowdy day clothes, Mary Bean is an altogether more glamorous proposition: a symphony in scarlet in a low-cut velvet evening gown with billowing sleeves, her hair held aloft by what appears to be a tortoiseshell comb. She’s adorned with plenty of jewellery, too – long dangling red earrings, a gold chain necklace, a ring, a brooch and pair of matching bracelets featuring large dark stones framed by smaller red stones, perhaps garnets. Her arm is resting on what appears to be a chair also covered in red velvet, and she’s holding something, although quite what is difficult to discern – perhaps a pen?

The whole suggests a woman very much aware of her own wealth and importance, and out to make an impression – so who was Mary Bean?

Little is known about her other than that she was probably related to four well-known local men who, confusingly, all bore the same name – William Bean – and whose careers and interests show a common thread which developed through the generations from a simple love of the land into valuable scientific research.

The first William was a market gardener in Brompton in the 1700s. He seems to have lived a fairly uneventful life other than fathering four children, including a son who bore the same name as him. William II followed in his father’s footsteps as a market gardener, but moved up in the world when, around 1790, he founded Bean’s Gardens, a delightful walled garden and recreation area near the current Huntriss Row which was open to paying guests and provided the venue for local events such as a ‘Monster Firework Display’ in the late summer of 1811.

On his father’s death around 1800, the gardens were inherited by William II’s son, yet another William (1787-1866), probably the best known member of the Bean family, and brother to our Mary. He apparently showed little interest in his inheritance, selling the gardens in the 1820s to the 19th century equivalent of a property developer, presumably to fund his pursuit of his real passion – William III was a geologist and conchologist, or shell specialist.

Considered a pioneer of the then relatively new science of geology, William amassed during his lifetime a collection of over 15,000 fossils, most of them found in and around Scarborough. Much of his shell collection is in the care of the Scarborough Collections.

William III was a member of the Scarborough Philosophical Society which founded the Rotunda Museum in 1829, and was therefore a contemporary and probably friend of William ‘Strata’ Smith, known as the father of English geology, and his nephew and also geologist, John Phillips. It’s remarkable to think of what Scarborough was 200 years ago – a thriving centre of scientific discovery which still has resonance two centuries later.

William Smith had moved to Scarborough because of his wife’s ill health – she was a Mary, and there has in the past been some suggestion that she may have been Mary Bean. So little is known about either woman that it’s impossible to say – but it seems unlikely. But we do know that Mary Bean donated money and objects to the Philosophical Society.

The fourth William – son of William III – was born in 1817 and, influenced by his father’s interest in natural history, became a botanist. This William spent much of his life in Liverpool, although he moved back to Scarborough shortly before his death in 1864.

The oils-on-canvas portrait of Mary Bean, by an unknown artist, was bequeathed to Scarborough Museums Trust in 1986 by Dr Bernard J Naylor.

It is part of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects and artwork acquired by the borough over the years, and now in the care of Scarborough Museums Trust. For further information, please contact Collections Manager Jennifer Dunne on Jennifer.dunne@smtrust.uk.com or 01723 384510.