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'The whole Marlborough Family in one Picture': the painting as Reynolds describedit sounds like a demanding puzzle. Indeed, portraying each of thefamily members separately would have been a feat in itself – but integrating them all intothe confines of one canvas required an exceptionally high level of skill. It must have been quite frustrating for the artistknowing that even if he ensured that all the elements were executed with excellence, the imageas a whole could still be considered unsuccessful. In the grand assembly there is onetheme which unites the façade of faces – Reynolds has cleverly cast an intriguing web of gazes, glimpses and glances over the eight figures. This pictorial device of creating interconnections allows for a degree of intimacy within this very public image which presents a famous aristocratic family.

The most explicit links are anchored on the two opposite edges of the print – the figures of the pair of eldest children help to balance and encircle the composition. Both parents are engaged in looking at them, somewhat wistfully, as if experiencing mixed feelings; however neither child returns their visual address. Lady Caroline is being observed by her mother as she is growing up to become a new matriarchal figure, like herself. Her younger brother and sister look up at her with discernible admiration and curiosity, as if they wish to emulate her confident pose and poise – and even even the littlest child'sclutched hand seeks her in a moment of insecurity. A high premium is placed on femininity, with six of the eight figures represented being women. While Lady Caroline attracts the gaze of her mother and the majority of hersiblings,George, the Marquess of Blandford, stands alone at the far left of the composition, supervised only by his father. His pictorial isolation hints at his developing role as a responsible heir, educated by the Duke – and this is reinforced by the fact he holds a book and his lips are parted as if in speech.Both the eldest children's gaze is directed away from their parents – Lady Caroline stares self-assuredly out of the print, while Lord Blandford's gaze seems almost to transcend his family,towards the depth of the family estate. As they come of age, perhaps we are meant to imagine that they will move in the direction of their gazes – Caroline into the realm of marriage outside the home, and George into his inheritance.

None of the protagonists' gazes are returned, which creates some visible tension within the frame. Interestingly, no one directs their attention towards the centre of the image – but a series of outstretched arms, hands and fingertips point towards the cameo of Emperor Augustus, held by the Duke, highlighting its presence. The dense composition contains a point of comic relief, relieving the tension and inviting the viewer into the image. The mischievous Lady Charlotte, who has picked up a mask of Silenus to jokingly frighten her littlesister, looks cheekily straight out at the viewer. All that the young Lady Anne sees – the classical mask – can be understood as a commentary on the limited perspective of an inexperienced child; but the fact that Lady Charlotte hides her face playfully behind the mask, while also glancing towards the viewer,seems to imply other interpretations, creating a sense of ambiguity around this symbol. This final, appealing gaze challenges the spectator not simply to be satisfied with a superficial glance at the portrait – but instead to delve deeper into this complex, multi-layered image to uncover its intricacies.

By Karolina Szuchnik