Belfast Telegraph

Museum acquires 17th Century portrait of ‘hairy’ woman

Barbara van Beck was renowned internationally and turned her condition to her advantage.

A rare depiction in oil paint of a woman with excessive hair growth is going on display in London.

The Wellcome Collection has acquired the 17th Century portrait of Barbara van Beck, a celebrity and businesswoman.

Dating from the 1640s, the portrait is said to be one of the earliest depictions of a person living with a genetic condition in which the face and often much of the body is covered with hair.

The image of the woman wearing an expensive silk gown, with a fashionable, low neckline, will join other portraits of individuals living with different health conditions, from across the centuries.

Curators said van Beck was renowned internationally and turned her condition to her advantage.

She travelled through Europe, including to London as a child and later in 1657 when diarist John Evelyn recorded seeing her at a show with other high-class performers.

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He wrote about seeing a “hairy” woman , describing her hair as “thick and even as grows on any woman’s head”, how she was neatly dressed, “very well shaped”, and how she “played well on the harpsichord”.

Evelyn was a friend of fellow diarist Samuel Pepys, who also documented a woman in London with a similar condition some years later.

The Wellcome Collection’s research development manager Dr Angela McShane, said: “It’s difficult to imagine what it must have been like to live with a condition such as this 350 years ago, but it’s also too easy to make assumptions based on today’s social and medical norms.

“We know that Barbara van Beck was a successful public figure, renowned internationally, and that she turned this condition to her advantage.

“There’s so much more to understand about this work, and by making it available to a wider audience we hope not just to further our understanding of the very different social and medical context of this period, but also to challenge ourselves to think about life, health and our place in the world.”

The Bavarian-born woman is thought to have had hypertrichosis, also called Ambras syndrome.

Born Barbara Ursler in 1629, she later married Johan Michael van Beck, who became her manager, and the couple had one child.

The portrait will go on display at the Wellcome Collection, which also has in its library five prints of the sitter, in early 2018.

It will also be shown at a conference on the Culture of Beauty which will be held at the free, London museum later next year.

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