Mary Black and her portrait of Dr Messenger Monsey
Portrait of Messenger Monsey.
Portrait of Messenger Monsey, X117

The RCP is delighted to announce a loan of a painting of physician Dr Messenger Monsey by Mary Black to Tate Britain’s exhibition Now you see us: Women artists in Britain 1520–1920.

Mary Black’s painting of Dr Messenger Monsey, a striking work by a British woman artist of the 1700s, will reach new audiences at Tate Britain’s ground-breaking show.

When Mary was in her twenties, she was commissioned by a friend of her family, Dr Messenger Monsey (1693–1788), to produce a portrait of the physician and also of his cousin, James Mounsey. She was also asked to paint a copy of each of the portraits, which the cousins intended on exchanging.

The extraordinary portrait of Messenger, usually on display at the RCP’s Osler Room, shows him wearing a pink suit, slumped in an armchair with one hand supporting his head, and the other holding his spectacles.

The late curator of the British Library Frances Harris described the image of Messenger:

‘All his restlessness, disillusionment and dishevelled intellectuality are apparent in the slumped pose and features’.


Messenger was a doctor from East Anglia who became a physician to the aristocracy and ended his lengthy career as physician to Chelsea Hospital. Alongside the portrait, letters from Messenger are held in the RCP’s archives and reveal his notorious wit and ill manners.

Messenger, aware of medical interest in him due to his remarkable age (he lived to 94), arranged for his own dissection after death. This is said to have happened before students at Guy’s Hospital. His heart must have been preserved as it was later drawn by medical students. Extraordinary drawings of his heart, recently digitised, are part of the RCP museum collection today.

Mary Black was attached to the studio of two very famous portrait painters of her age, Allan Ramsay and Sir Joshua Reynolds.  Confident in the level of her professional ability, she asked Messenger for a fee of £25 for the pair of portraits and their copies that she believed was reasonable at ‘1/2 Reynolds price’. Both Messenger and his cousin, James baulked at paying such an amount. Letters held at the British Library exchanged between the disgruntled pair show how they begrudged paying Mary a professional fee on the grounds that they were doing her a favour by patronising her and sitting for her at all.

As well as the dissatisfaction with the fee, Messenger hated the portrait for its frankness, likening his figure to a ‘hog in armour’. Messenger wrote to Mary, suggesting that her artist father Thomas Black finish the portrait or perhaps burn it. Curator Frances Harris suggested that the false attribution of the work to Mary’s father stems from this correspondence. Yet the striking likeness and pose of the sitter, and the known fact of Messenger sitting for Mary,  proves that the painting is her work. She also highlights that Thomas Black was a drapery painter rather than a portraitist.

Messenger never took ownership of the painting, nor was it destroyed as he had suggested. Instead the portrait was recorded among Mary’s possessions at her death. The work passed down through her family before eventually being donated to the RCP by her great nephew Frederick Walford in 1877.

Spanning four centuries, Tate Britain’s exhibition reveals how the art establishment was often a hostile place for women artists. Mary sadly struggled to establish herself as a portrait artist but found employment as a teacher of crayons to aristocratic women and became a member of the Royal Society of Artists.

From patrons who undermined her work to the presumed attribution of her work to her father, history has been condescending of Mary’s talent. Despite so many underestimating her, however, it is a pleasant reversal of fortune that Mary’s painting of Dr Messenger will be showcased at such a major retrospective of British women’s art, alongside over 150 works by similar boundary-breaking women artists. The journeys they took to become professional artists were fraught with obstacles; Mary’s experience of being commissioned by Dr Messenger and his cousin was no exception.

Now you see us: Women artists in Britain 1520 – 1920 runs from 16 May to 13 October 2024.


Now You See Us art exhibition poster.



  • British Library, Manuscripts Collections, Hammick Papers (unincorporated) : correspondence between Messenger Monsey and James Mounsey, 1763 - 1765
  • Harris F. Mary Black and the Portrait of Dr Monsey. Burlington Magazine 1993;135:534­–6.
  • Jordanova, LJ. Physicians and their images. London: Little, Brown, 2018.
  • Payne, JF revised by M Bevan. Messenger Monsey. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. [Accessed 3 May 2024].
  • Walford F. Autograph letters to James Risdon Bennet, 18 and 22 October 1877. MS2004/25 and MS2004/26.
Elizabeth Douglas ,
Collections officer

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