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One of the most remarkable aspects of this double portrait is the almost identical costume worn by the sisters. Their deep black dresses are not a sign of mourning, but an illustration of their wealth, since the dyes required for such an intense, fast colour were very expensive, having reached Europe from the Spanish conquests in the New World. The quantity of this luxurious fabric is also significant. The sisters both wear 'wheel farthingales' – a series of hoops fastened around the hips to widen the skirt – over which the material is pleated into numerous flounces. Anne favoured this fashion until her death, insisting that farthingales were worn at court despite waning popularity and objections even from James I himself. In 1617, the Venetian Ambassador observed that she wore ‘so expansive a farthingale that I do not exaggerate when I say it was four feet wide in the hips…’.1
The elegant lace which abounds on both dresses is also a reflection of the sisters’ means and taste, not to mention the innumerable pearls – Anne’s jewels of preference amongst her extensive collection.2 Notable too are the barred ‘S’ earrings worn by the sitters. ‘S’s are found in other jewels of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, commonly signifying constancy in love.3 Here, however, the ‘S’ is more likely a reference to the sisters' mother, Sophie of Mecklenburg (1557–1631). Anne is portrayed wearing both an ‘S’-form jewel and one shaped into the monogram ‘C4’ – a gift from her brother King Christian IV of Denmark – in several portraits, exhibiting her noble bloodline beyond her position as Queen Consort in England.4
The portrayal of two sisters in a single painting is unusual but not without precedent in this ‘Jacobethan’ period. A double portrait at Longleat House, Wiltshire, of about 1581, is believed to depict Dorothy and Penelope Devereux, famous beauties in the court of Elizabeth I, who share a remarkable likeness;5 and a painting in the collection of Viscount de L’Isle, Penshurt Place, dated 1612, is thought to picture Lady Mary Wroth and her sister.6 The present work would appear to fall somewhere between these two works, around the last decade of the sixteenth century – a date which would also tally with the apparent ages of the presumed sitters.
The intimacy of the sisters' gestures here is reminiscent of one of the most well-known sororal double portraits – that believed to portray Gabrielle d’Estrées and one of her sisters, represented naked in a bath, by the Fontainebleau School, circa 1594 (Musée du Louvre, Paris).7 The matching dresses worn by the sisters here likewise reflect a mutual, affectionate closeness. In this way, the portrait may also be compared to the enigmatic Cholmondeley Ladies (Tate, London), circa 1600–10, in which the sitters' striking resemblance signifies their shared bond of having been born, married and 'brought to Bed the same day', according to a later inscription on the painting.8 As with that portrait, the attachment between the sisters here is counterbalanced by a certain remoteness, typifying the focus of Elizabethan portraiture on the symbols of status and identity, rather than psychological insight – and it is precisely this synthesis that generates the iconic and memorable impact of this work.
1. 'Venice: December 1617, 16–30', in Calendar of State Papers Relating To English Affairs in the Archives of Venice, vol. 15, 1617–19, A. B. Hinds (ed.), London 1909, pp. 75–89.
2. As well as inheriting jewels from Tudor and Stuart royalty, Anne appointed Edinburgh jeweller George Heriot her goldsmith in 1597. He provided her with jewels totalling £40,000 – equivalent to £3.9 million today. See D. Scarisbrick, 'Anne of Denmark’s jewellery inventory', in Archaeologia, vol. 109, 1991, pp. 193–237.
3. See, for example, the portrait by Paul van Somer of Sir Gilbert Houghton, wearing an earring with a jewelled 'S' hung with a wounded heart, in D. Scarisbrick, Jewels in Britain 1066–1837, Norwich 1994, p. 121, reproduced p. 120, plate 48.
4. See, for example, the panel attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (Royal Collection, inv. no. RCIN 404437), in A. Reynolds, In fine style. The art of Tudor and Stuart fashion, London 2013, p. 42, reproduced in colour figs 1 and 28; and the miniature by Isaac Oliver (Royal Collection, inv. no. RCIN 420041), in G. Reynolds, The Sixteenth & Seventeenth Century Miniatures in the Collection of Her Majesty the Queen, London 1999, cat. no. 53, reproduced.
5. See M. Margetts, 'Lady Penelope Rich: Hilliard’s lost miniatures and a surviving portrait', The Burlington Magazine, vol. CXXX, no. 1027, October 1988, pp. 759–60, reproduced p. 759, fig. 49.
6. See E. Waterhouse, The Dictionary of 16th & 17th Century British Painters, Woodbridge 1988, reproduced p. 105 (as Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, titled 'Barbara Gamage, Countess of Leicester, and her eldest daughter Lady Mary Wroth').
7. Inv. no. R.F.1937-1; see J.-J. Lévêque, L’Ecole de Fontainebleau, Neuchâtel 1984, p. 132, reproduced in colour pp. 136-37.
8. Inv. no. T00069; see J.T. Hopkins, ‘'Such a Twin Likeness there was in the Pair': An Investigation into the Painting of the Cholmondeley Sisters’, in Transactions of the Historical Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, vol. 141, 1991/92, pp. 1–37, reproduced in colour.
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