All images © British Library
** PLEASE DESCRIBE THIS IMAGE **
** PLEASE DESCRIBE THIS IMAGE **

(Double click image to enlarge)

Reynolds's portrait shows the beautiful Mrs Musters as the Greek goddess of youth and vitality, Hebe. In classical mythology, Hebe served nectar and ambrosia to the gods – which allegedly gave them immortality – and is shown here in her role as cupbearer to Jupiter, personified by his sacred eagle. It is unusual that Mrs Musters is portrayed as Hebe, as when the goddess married Hercules, she no longer served the gods – and yet when this was painted, in 1782, Mrs Musters had alreadybeen married for six years, so she appears to be presented as a single woman. Intriguingly, it was reported that Sophia Musters was very unhappyin her marriage to John Musters of Colwick Hall, Nottinghamshire, and the couple had grown apart by the time of this portrait's execution. Reputedly, the union had been arranged by her father, despite the young Sophia being in love with a childhood friend at the time – a lovewhich she never seemed to be able to let go.

It could be suggested that the allegory hints at her wish to return to thecarefree days of her youth, where she had few responsibilities, and could be reunited with her childhood love.Although she and her husband eventually reconciled – and he in fact purchased this portrait in 1788 –she experienced a period of turmoil in the middle when she lost her daughter soon after the birth, and separated briefly from her husband. John Musters seems to have forgiven Sophia for the countless affairs she had, including one with her childhood love, and for the amorous attention she loved to receive. Sophia Musters was well known for being beautiful, flirtatious and captivating; her husband was also foolishly besotted by her. It is thought that the Prince of Wales was one of her many admirers – and even Reynolds himself.

Her vivacious and provocative spirit shines through in this print after Reynolds's painting – the gauzy, translucent fabric of her shawl billows around her, the diaphanous drapery of her dress swirls at her feet, merging into the nebulous clouds, and her hair – wisps of which have escaped from what would have previously been a perfectly finished style – flies in the wind. Perhaps these pictorial devices were employed to differentiate this portrait from a more decorous and demure picture her husband had commissioned in 1777.

By Lizzie Stuart