‘A Most Ignominious Thing’: Face-Paint and Cosmetics in Seventeenth-Century England

By Marlo Avidon, @MarloAvidon

Today, when people hear the term ‘face-paint’, they typically envision children at street-fairs, or birthday party guests decorated as princesses, cats, or fairies. Yet, in seventeenth-century England,  ‘painting the face’ was akin to modern make-up, with various pigments used to colour the face artificially and achieve the contemporary beauty standard of a ‘lily-white’ and ‘rose-red’ complexion.[1] Expensive (and often toxic) substances including carmine, vermillion, and white lead formed the basis of these powders and paints, known as a ceruse or fucus. However, unlike the preceding century, where the skin was tinted in unnatural, extreme shades (Fig. 1), contemporary portraiture reveals that by the reign of Charles II (1660-85) face-paint was strategically utilised to enhance one’s natural beauty subtly (Fig. 2). This reflected a growing belief that women’s appearances directly correlated to both their physical health and inner qualities or character.

Figure 1. British School, Elizabeth Vernon, Countess of Southampton, Oil on Canvas, c. 1603, Fitzwilliam Museum (reproduced from https://collection.beta.fitz.ms/id/object/3148
Figure 2. Sir Peter Lely (1618-80), Frances Brooke, Lady Whitmore (d. 1690), circa 1665, oil on canvas, Royal Collection, Hampton Court Palace (reproduced from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Frances_Brooke.jpg)

Indeed, as artificial beautification became widespread, critique over the morality of painting the face grew. To the seventeenth-century Englishman, painting the face was a duplicitous way of masking one’s imperfections and presenting a disingenuous image of the self, becoming increasingly linked to vanity, female sexuality, and even fears of Popish influence. John Evelyn famously remarked ‘how most women began to paint themselves, formerly a most ignominious thing, and used only by prostitutes’, while Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary a dinner party where the hostesses’ made-up face made him ‘loathe her’, highlighting popular discomfort with women’s overt use of face-paint.[2] Recipes for such artificial adornments even addressed these anxieties. In his text, Polygraphice, William Salmon  provided instructions for a ‘Fucus or Paint not easie to be discovered’ that ‘may deceive any man,’ highlighting that face-paints should remain indiscernible from one’s natural appearance to present the most virtuous image of the self and remain a secret to male observers.[3]

To combat animosity towards face-painting, women increasingly relied on ‘cosmetics.’ In contrast to paints, which temporarily concealed one’s imperfections, cosmetics were believed to have intrinsic and permanent health benefits and were often published alongside medicinal instructions as a subdiscipline of the field. This is demonstrated by the subtitle of Johan Wecker’s 1660 Cosmeticks, or the beautifying part of physick. Recipe books often made a concerted attempt to distinguish between these two forms of artificial beautification. William Salmon identified the two primary means of enhancing one’s appearance: ‘by painting’ or by applying ‘excellent Cosmeticks, which gives a most natural, absolute and lasting beauty’, clearly expressing a preference for the latter due to its genuine and enduring effects.[4] Moreover, as external appearance was believed to be based on the balance of internal humours, these same functions conceivably governed internal characteristics and behaviours. In contrast, non-medicinal face-paints hiding imperfections could not improve one’s inner nature, thus explaining their condemnation as deceptive tools employed by women to fool men. By using cosmetics to permanently improve physical health and restore equilibrium, women boosted their spiritual health, promoting a perfected character reflected by their outward beauty.

For the renowned Restoration beauty Frances Stuart, the Duchess of Richmond and Lennox, a combination of both cosmetics and face-paint were essential to crafting her image, particularly following a case of small-pox, after which Samuel Pepys lamented that ‘it would make a man weep to see what she was like then and what she is like to be, by people’s discourse, now.’ (figs. 3-4)[7] In addition to benefitting from artistic intervention in her portraits and the use of face-paints, domestic recipe books contain several recipes Frances could have possibly used – such as recipes ‘For taking away Spots in the Face after the Small-Pox’ and ‘To take away the Holes and Pits in the Face by reason of the Small-Pox’, which used ingredients such as water, bran, and vinegar.[8] To Frances, maintaining her beauty and reputation required constant negotiation between competing and often contradictory attitudes towards cosmetics, face-paint and artificial embellishment. Female courtiers’ social success rested on their physical appearance and adherence to beauty standards or court-look. Cosmetics and face-paints were therefore a valuable asset, though women had to remain cautious of indulging in overt displays of vanity which could negatively impact their peers’ perception of them.

Figure 3. Peter Lely, ‘Frances Theresa Stuart’, oil on canvas, 1662, Hampton Court Palace (reproduced from https://www.rct.uk/collection/404514/frances-stuart-duchess-of-richmond-1648-1702)
Figure 4. Jean Petitot, ‘Frances Teresa Stuart, Duchess of Richmond’, Enamel on Metal, 1669, Victoria and Albert Museum (reproduced from https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O17386/portrait-of-frances-teresa-stuart-enamel-miniature-petitot-jean/)

Ultimately, women were forced to navigate a precarious balance between elevating their appearance to match contemporary standards while adhering to societal and moral considerations, prioritising one’s natural beauty over the obvious use of cosmetic enhancement. As scholarship on the history of cosmetics grows, and innovative projects such as the University of Auckland’s Beautiful Chemistry Project attempt to recreate many of these contemporary recipes, it is essential to remember their contemporaneous nuance and complexity, as well as the significant implications they bore for their female users.[9]


[1] Aileen Ribeiro, Facing Beauty: Painted Women & Cosmetic Art (London; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), pp. 32-34. See also Farah Karim-Cooper, Cosmetics in Shakespearean and Renaissance Drama (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006).

[2] John Evelyn, The Diary of John Evelyn Kalendarium, vol. III,  p. 97; Pepys, The diary of Samuel Pepys, vol. VIII, p. 439.

[3] William Salmon, Polygraphice, or, the arts of drawing, engraving, etching, limning, painting, washing, varnishing, gilding, colouring, dying, beautifying, and perfuming in four books (London: Printed by E.T. and R.H. for R. Jones, 1673), pp. 292-293.

[4] Ibid., p. 288.

[5] Thomas Jeamson, Artificiall embellishments, or Arts best directions how to preserve beauty or procure it (Oxford: Printed by William Hall, 1665), pp. 63-65.

[6] Anonymous, The water of talk, with divers essences and rarities (London, 1670), unnumbered folio.

[7] Samuel Pepys, The diary of Samuel Pepys: a new and complete transcription, edited by Robert Latham and William Matthews, 11 vol. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970-83), vol. IX, p. 139.

[8] Anonymous, The accomplish’d lady’s delight in preserving, physick, beautifying, and cookery (London; Printed for Nath. Crouch, at the George at the lower end of Cornhil over against the Stocks-Market, 1677), pp. 166-167.

[9] On The Beautiful Chemistry Project, see https://www.beautifulchemistryproject.com/.

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