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oil painting

  • Object type

  • Museum number


  • Description

    Portrait of Mary Davis (the horned lady) (born c. 1594), aged 74. H.L. in profile to r., wearing dark dress and large white collar
    Oil painting on canvas

  • Producer name

  • Date

    • 1668
  • Dimensions

    • Height: 77 centimetres
    • Width: 64 centimetres
  • Inscriptions

      • Inscription Content

        "This is the portraiture of Mary Davis, an inhabitant of Great Saughall near Chester ... was taken Ano. Dom. 1668, Aetatis 74 when she was 28 years old an excrescence rose uppon her head which continued thirty years then grew into two hornes after 5 years she cast them then grew 2 more after 5 years she cast them These uppon her head have grown 4 years and are to be seen ... " [illegible – the inscription is slightly cropped on the right side].
  • Curator's comments

    “Take but a Walk to the Swan in the Strand ...and there thou mayest ... see a Woman with Horns growing upon the hinder Part of her Head” (Phoenix Britannicus, 1732). This is a portrait of Mary Davis (or Davies), aged 74, who was on display to the curious public. Her condition, a sebaceous horn, was rare, but instances still occur today. Mary Davies is variously said to have been born in Great Saughall, Chester in 1594 or Shotwick in 1604.

    The portrait seems to have been displayed in the Museum since at least 1761. Powlett (1761) p. 97 rather ambiguously mentions it as being in the 'Collectio Sloaniana'. Paintings ... 'A woman who had two horny substances grew out of the back Part of her Head; one of the Horns is kept in some of the Cabinets in this Room. A Picture of the same woman and another Horn are shewn at Oxford'. Also shown was an actual horn from a Mrs French of Tenterden, Kent which had been purchased by Sir Hans Sloane. The origins of the painting are not known but in the Phoenix Britannicus article there is the comment “I am informed, that this very Mother Davies’s Picture is now in the possession of the learned R. M—d, M.D.” Dr Richard Mead (1673-1754), a contemporary of Sloane was also a noted physician and collector so the Museum’s portrait, which is not listed in Sloane’s catalogues, may have been acquired from Mead.
    However a manuscript playlet tour of the Museum in 1769 (British Library Add ms 27,276 fol. 57) in referring to the Chelsea vases states that 'over them is the picture of the Old Woman of 72 from whose Head the Horn sprouted and was cut off which you see represented as growing there.'

    A recent discovery by Felicity Roberts of two letters in the Sloane Papers in the British Library indicates that the painting may well have come from Sloane. In a letter of 21 August 1709 (BL Sloane MS 4042 ff 40-41) Dr Richard Middleton Massey states that on a visit to Cheshire and Lancashire he had seen a painting of Mary Davies, the Horned Woman of Cheshire. In October 1709 Massey writes to Sloane "I will send up ye picture the first opportunity if you please call upon Mr Dixon at the Greyhound in Cornhill". (See www.sloaneletters.com/2013/12).

    The 1879 List of paintings ... describes this painting as 'Mary Davis, an inhabitant of Great Saughall in Cheshire, taken 1668, "aetatis 74". At the age of 28 an excrescence grew upon her head, like a wen, which continued 30 years, and then grew into two horns, one of which the profile represents.'


  • Bibliography

    • List of Portraits suspended on the Walls of the Eastern Zoological Gallery 104 (No. 103 in 1842) bibliographic details
  • Location


  • Exhibition history

    Montagu House (1761)
    Montagu House, Base Storey, Room XIII (10 Feb 1810)
    Eastern Zoological Gallery (1842, 1879)
    King Edward VII Gallery, near Bay xviii
    Department of Prints & Drawings (Keeper's Room)

  • Associated names

  • Acquisition name

  • Acquisition date

    1753 [?]

  • Acquisition notes

    Although the painting is mentioned in early guide books, there seems to be no record of its acquisition. The attribution to the collection of Dr Richard Mead (1673-1754) is recorded in an annotation to the P&D Register: 'see: J. Morgan, Phoenix Britannicus, Lond. 1732 vol. I p. 249 'Brief narrative of a strange and wonderful old woman who hath a pair of horns growing upon her head. 1679' Wife to Mr Henry Davies - Her picture now in poss. of the learned R. M---d MD [no doubt Dr Mead].' In J. Morgan, Phoenix Britannicus (London, 1732), Vol. 1, p.250 a description of the ‘horned lady’ Mary Davies is followed by the comment “I am informed, that this very Mother Davies’s Picture is now in the possession of the learned R. M—d, M.D.” Dr Richard Mead (1673-1754), a contemporary of Sloane and also a noted physician, was a considerable collector. It has been suggested that the painting might have come to the Museum in 1753 with the Sloane collection but it is not listed in Sloane’s catalogue. The catalogue does include an entry for an actual horn bought by Sloane from a Mrs French of Tenterden, Kent. A portrait of Mary Davies, now lost, was also owned by the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. There is an ambiguous reference to paintings on display in the BM in E Powlett The General Contents of the British Museum: with Remarks serving as a Directory in viewing that Noble Cabinet (Dodsley, 1761) p. 97 “A Woman who had two horny Substances grew out of the back Part of her Head; one of the Horns is kept in some of the Cabinets in this Room. A Picture of the same Woman and another Horn are shewn at Oxford.” It has recently been suggested by Felicity Roberts (see Comment) that the painting was in fact acquired by Sloane in 1709 through Dr Richard Middleton Massey.

  • Department

    Prints & Drawings

  • Registration number



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