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The discovery of the only known portrait of Jamaican-born nurse, Mary Seacole, is making headlines across the United Kingdom (UK). Mary Seacole, who last year was voted the greatest black Briton in history, was a contemporary of Florence Nightingale and was revered for her feats in the Crimean War.
The oil painting of the Jamaican-born nurse (9.5 inches by 7 inches) will now go on display at the National Portrait Gallery in London. The artwork dates from around 1869 and was painted by London artist, Albert Challen. It shows an older Seacole wearing a red neckerchief and the three medals, which she was awarded for service.
There is no other known painted portrait of Miss Seacole, who died in 1881 in her London home.
She was voted the greatest black Briton in an online poll last year on the website, Every Generation. The project was launched during the observation of Britain’s Black History Month in 2003. The man behind the concept, Patrick Vernon, said the aim was to bring about a balance to the campaign by the BBC to name 100 great Britons that did not include anyone from the ethnic minority community.
This year marks the bicentenary of her birth and a campaign to erect a statue in her honour in central London was launched a year ago.
The oil painting, which was found on the back of another print, was sold at a car boot sale in the Cotswold town of Buford, before it was auctioned to a dealer at a social club in Shipston on Stour, Warwickshire. The new owner, curious to confirm the identity of the elderly black lady in the painting, realised its significance.
Historian Helen Rappaport was contacted and immediately recognised the identity of the sitter, bought the portrait and took it to the National Portrait Gallery for examination.
“As an admirer of Mary Seacole’s courage and humanitarianism, I am extremely happy that she can at last take her rightful place in British history as an important female personality of the Crimean War,” Miss Rappaport said.
Experts at the gallery believe the details of Miss Seacole’s dress and the portrait’s pigments show the painting is genuine.
Sandy Nairne, Director of the National Portrait Gallery said “this is a wonderful discovery. A painted portrait allows us to appreciate the important 19th Century figure of Mary Seacole in new ways”.
Miss Seacole remained in the Crimea until 1856 . When she returned to England destitute, commanders in the Crimea raised money for the nurse, who was awarded the British Crimean medal, the Turkish Medal and the French Legion of Honour.
Despite the posthumous recognition as the Greatest Black Briton last year, Miss Seacole’s public profile has remained low compared to that of her white counterpart, Florence Nightingale.
The Jamaican-born nurse set up her own nursing and supplies business in the Crimea after being rejected for formal duties by the British War Office.
Undeterred, Miss Seacole opened the British Hotel outside Balaclava. Her herbal remedies, particularly for dysentery, were much in demand and her reputation spread through British newspaper columns.
She was born in Kingston in 1805, to a Scottish soldier father and a Jamaican mother who ran a boarding house for invalid soldiers.