PORTRAIT OF A LADY
A remarkable painting of hirsute Bavarian prodigy Barbara van Beck has made its way to London
On 15 September 1657 the diarist John Evelyn had a conversation with an intelligent, cultured German woman, dressed in the height of fashion, who played beautifully to him on the harpsichord. She also had “a most prolix beard & moustachios, with long locks of haire growing on the very middle of her nose, exactly like an Iceland Dog [a fashionable shaggy lap dog of the day]…. Her very Eyebrowes were combed upwards & all her forehead as thick & even as growes on any woman’s head, neatly dress’d. There come also two locks very long out of each Eare.”
The Wellcome Collection in London has acquired a remarkable portrait painted a few years before their meeting, which shows Barbara van Beck exactly as Evelyn described her: composed, dignified, wearing a beautiful and expensive low-cut grey silk dress, with a lace collar tied with a scarlet bow, and more ribbons in her hair which was, Evelyn wrote, “light browne & fine as well dressed flax”. Evelyn had been dragged in by friends to see a Turkish tightrope walker, and was surprised to meet Barbara, whom he described as “the Hairy Maid, or Woman”. He had met her 20 years earlier when she was only eight, but already being exhibited by her parents.
“We don’t know who painted the portrait, or where, when or for whom – but the point of it is Barbara’s dignity,” said Angela McShane, Wellcome’s research development manager. “This is a beautifully executed high-status painting. She is not portrayed as a freak as the Victorians would have described her – as I often say when lecturing, you can blame the Victorians for most things – but as a woman with great self-possession and presence, painted at a time when she would have been viewed, as Evelyn saw her, as wonderful, a natural wonder. There is nothing titillating about her low-cut dress either, though we might now see it that way. She is dressed in the highest fashion of the day and contemporary viewers would have recognised that… There is no reason why she wouldn’t have had a normal lifespan. If you survived to 10 years old, you were highly likely to make it to 60. There must be more records of her out there somewhere.”
She was born Barbara Ursler (or Urslerin) in 1629 near Augsburg in Bavaria, one of several children but the only one with the condition.
“We don’t know who painted the portrait, or where, or when, or for whom...”
Her parents exhibited her in travelling shows, but she clearly also acquired an education and could speak several languages. The anatomist Thomas Bartolin saw her in Copenhagen in 1639. She married a German called Johann Michael von Beck, who became her manager. She told Evelyn she had “one child that was not hairy, nor were any of her parents or relations”. The last known reference to the hirsute prodigy is in 1668, when the Dane Holger Jacobsen encountered her in London.
The Wellcome Collection, which already has five prints of the same woman, has identified the condition as a very rare congenital endocrine condition known as hypertrichosis or Ambras Syndrome. It was named for Ambras castle in Innsbruck, where Ferdinand II, the Archduke of Austria, had created a famous cabinet of curiosities – still open to the public – which included portraits of people with unusual medical conditions such as hirsutism (see “The Old Curiosity Schloss” by Mike Jay, FT87:23-25). The portrait of Van Beck is of such high quality that McShane wonders if it could have been in the collection at some point after Ferdinand’s death.
For more on Barbara van Beck and other hirsute wonders, see “Hairy Tales” by Jan Bondeson, FT209:46-51. Guardian, 14 Dec 2017.
The newly aqcuired portrait of Barbara van Beck. Barbara in an etching made by Richard Gaywood in London, 1656.
ABOVE: Barbara in an undated mezzotint. BELOW: A stipple engraving by G Scott, which would seem to derive from the same source. FACING PAGE BOTTOM: An etching by RS Kirby of 1813 showing Barbara at the keyboard.