'High-status' portrait of bearded woman bought by Wellcome Collection

Science and medical foundation identifies condition as rare congenital endocrine condition known as Ambras Syndrome

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, & mustachios, with long locks of haire growing on the very middle of her nose, exactly like an Island Dog.”

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, “neatly dress’d … of a bright browne & fine as well dressed flax”.

“We dont know who painted the portrait, or where, when or for whom, but the point of it is Barbara’s dignity,” Angela McShane, Wellcome’s research development manager, said. “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 is in the highest fashion of the day and contemporary viewers would have recognised that.”

Samuel Pepys, Evelyn’s contemporary and friend, also met a bearded woman in London in 1668. Some historians believe it was the same person, but McShane thinks this was another woman with a different condition. The diarist described her as “a little plain woman, a Dane, her name Ursula Dyan, about 40 years old, her voice like a little girl’s, with a beard as much as any man I ever saw, as black almost and grizzly”.

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.

She was born Barbara Ursler in 1629 near Augsburg in Bavaria, one of several children but the only one with the condition – unlike the famous Gonzalez family a generation earlier who were all famously hairy – and spent periods living at the French and several Italian courts.

Her parents exhibited her in travelling shows, but she clearly also acquired an education. By the time Evelyn met her, she was in London for at least the second time, and had travelled widely across Europe. She spoke several languages, and as she told Evelyn, had married a Dutchman called Michael von Beck. She told him she had “one child that was not hairy, nor were any of her parents or relations”.

Evelyn compared her appearance to that of an Iceland dog, a fashionable shaggy lap dog of the day. “Her very Eyebrowes were combed upward, & 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 rest of her body not so hairy yet exceedingly long in comparison, armes, neck, breast & back … & for the rest very well shaped, plaied well on the Harpsichord.”

McShane said Evelyn’s description of the meeting was significant. “They had a proper conversation, he didn’t just stare at her. There is nothing of the cheap sideshow about it. This is an elegant entertainment for aristocrats.”

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. 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.

“We know nothing of Barbara’s life after that meeting in London. She disappears from history. 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, a research project waiting for somebody.”

Her portrait will be on display at the Wellcome Collection in the new year after conservation work, and will also be included in a major conference on beauty later in the year.


Maev Kennedy

The GuardianTramp

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