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Professor Colin Lawson and Professor Gabriele Rossi Rognoni with portrait of Mary Harvey, Lady Dering at the RCM

Royal College of Music Museum acquires portrait of first published female composer in Britain

Thursday 27 May 2021

The Royal College of Music Museum has acquired a portrait of Mary Harvey, Lady Dering, the first published female composer in British history.

The portrait, previously part of the family collection of the late Countess Mountbatten of Burma, was purchased in a Sotheby’s auction with support from the Art Fund, the Arts Council England/V&A Purchase Grant Fund and a personal contribution from RCM Director Professor Colin Lawson. The 17th-century painting is a rare example of the work of Thomas Hawker and one of only three known portraits of Lady Dering. Examples of Lady Dering's music are held in the RCM Library collection.

Mary Harvey was the first woman to publish music under her own name in Britain. The acquisition of her portrait is of particular interest to the Royal College of Music, where researchers are undertaking significant work to promote the role of women in the history of British music. The Royal College of Music Museum represents composers from a variety of backgrounds and recently released a digital exhibition entitled, Beautiful Objects/Beautiful Subjects: Stories of female music making in the portrait collection at the Royal College of Music.

Mary was the daughter of a merchant and niece of William Harvey, a celebrated anatomist and physician who discovered the circulation of blood. In 1649, she began her studies with renowned musician and composer Henry Lawes and flourished under his tutelage. Lawes’s Select Ayres and Dialogues is dedicated to Mary: ‘those Songs which fill this Book have receiv’d much lustre by your excellent performance of them’. The book also includes three songs written by Mary, with words by her husband Edward Dering, a talented poet.

Professor Colin Lawson, Director of the RCM, comments: ‘Lady Dering is extremely important to the representation of female composers in British musical history, so it is wonderful to add this painting to our collection.’

Professor Gabriele Rossi Rognoni, Curator of the Royal College of Music Museum, comments: ‘I am delighted to have acquired this wonderful portrait of Lady Dering which will be on display at the Royal College of Music for visitors to enjoy when we are able to welcome them to the brand-new Royal College of Music Museum this autumn.’

As part of the RCM’s £40million development completed in 2020, the College gained a new home for the Royal College of Music Museum, featuring fascinating musical objects, interactive displays, specially curated temporary exhibitions and dynamic spaces for live performance on historical instruments. Following a delayed opening due to Covid-19 lockdown restrictions, the Royal College of Music Museum will open to the public in autumn 2021.

Find out more about the Royal College of Music Museum.