A re­mark­able paint­ing of hir­sute Bavar­ian prodigy Bar­bara van Beck has made its way to Lon­don

Fortean Times - - Strange Days -

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.

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