Portrait of Aphra Behn, the Author
Aphra Behn is generally considered the first woman to have earned a living as a novelist. She was born around 1640 and lived through the Restoration period. She produced at least 19 known compositions most of which were plays. Aphra was relatively well known in her time, also the fact that she had performed some spy work in Holland for King Charles II probably helped to enlarge the public's interest in her. She died in 1689.
The earliest record of the Mary Beale portrait of Aphra Behn is the engraving by J Fittler ARA. This was published 1 March 1822 by W Walker, 8 Grays Inn Square, London. The caption below the engraving reads "Aphra Behn. From a Picture by Mary Beale, in the Collection of His Grace the Duke of Buckingham". While it is engraved by J Fittler, a small note states that this was done from a drawing by T Uwins.
We know that by 1848 the Duke of Buckingham had become bankrupt and the contents of his home "Stowe House" were sold by auction. This sale was very large and lasted 37 days. A very detailed catalogue was printed and for some lots the names of the purchasers were also recorded.
We know from the sale catalogue that James Stamford Caldwell, of Linley Wood, Staffordshire, bought a number of items, including the portrait of Aphra Behn. This was recorded as lot 57, from the "State Closet" on the 21st day of the sale. In addition to the portrait of Aphra Behn this lot also contained a portrait of William Earl of Glencairn. Lot 57 is recorded as being sold to Caldwell for 6 pounds & 6 shillings.
In 1925 Maj Gen FC Heath-Caldwell (who had inherited Linley Wood) wrote out a list of the entire contents of Linley Wood. On his list there are a number of items recorded as being from the Stowe sale and he notes hanging in the hall a portrait of "Aphra Behn by Mary Beale".
In addition to this list, stuck into the page, is a small newspaper clipping regarding a letter from Montague Summers to the Editor of the Times. Montague Summers states that he is about to publish a new 6 volume edition of the complete works of Aphra Behn and that he would be very interested in making contact with the owner of the portrait of Aphra Behn by Mary Beale. The date is November 16 but the exact year is not recorded. It may have been earlier than FC Heath-Caldwell's list, possibly 1914, as in 1915 William Heinemann published a 6 volume set titled "Works of Aphra Behn edited by Montague Summers"
Whether or not Montague Summers made contact with FC Heath-Caldwell is not known and I have not to date seen a copy of his book to ascertain if a copy of the portrait by Mary Beale is included.
In 1949 Linley Wood was, together with most of the contents of the house, sold by Capt CH Heath-Caldwell. No record exists of what happened to the portrait of Aphra Behn but an elderly member of the family remembers CH Heath-Caldwell giving the portrait away to someone who had an interest in Aphra Behn.
The portrait of Aphra Behn, painted by Mary Beale, now hangs in St Hilda's College in Oxford. It has a note on the back of it confirming that it was given by Capt CH Heath-Caldwell to Miss MV Wakefield-Richmond who is noted as a biographer of Aphra Behn. It is a small portrait in oil, measuring approximately 12 inches in height. A small plaque beside it states that it was given to St Hilda's by Miss M.V. Wakefield-Richmond.
For more information on Aphra Behn, I can recommend a very comprehensive biography, written by Janet Todd, titled "The Secret Life of Aphra Behn", published 1996. This also contains images of a number of other portraits also reputed to be of Aphra Behn.