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Reynolds's engagement portrait of Lady Sarah Bunbury sacrificing to the Graces (1762-65), explores a variety of themes including mythology, theatricality, femininity and – crucially – allegory. Five female figures, on three different levels, are engaged in the act of preparing, offering, or receiving libations – and Lady Sarah's centrally-placed form is especially prominent, her curves paradoxically both highlighted and covered by the clinging fabric of her classical gown. The fluted folds of the drapery flow downwards and pool around her feet, rendering her with an almost marble-like, statuesque appearance – reminiscent of such famousfemale sculptures from antiquity as the Venus de Milo. The comparison, or identification, with Venus would bestow Lady Sarah with the classical goddess'attributes, such as beauty and desirability, while retaining the aristocrat's modesty and decorum due to her clothed form.

The allegorical elements of this image can be seen to extend beyond mere supposition included within the context of the painting, as is the case with some of Reynolds's other portraits of the same period, such as Lady Elizabeth Keppel, who is depicted adorning a term of Hymen (see entry 1). In this picture, although both share the theme of ladies making libations and Reynolds has replicated the strong diagonal line of the previous composition – which draws the spectator's eye upwards towards the three Graces – the allegory is made more explicit. Intriguingly, Lady Sarah allegedly enjoyed dressing up in the guise of classical figures, and regularly acted in private theatricals at Holland House. As stated in The Edinburgh Review, she starred alongside 'Mr Fox, who played Hastings to the Jane Shore of the beautiful Lady Sarah Bunbury.' Her passion for drama can be seen in the overt theatricality of the print – here she plays the part of a priestess worshipping at an altar, in costume, with a spotlight focused on her as she treads the boards – as if the artist were directing a production. The three Graces, to whom Lady Sarahsacrifices, enhance the sense of movement within the painting, as they appear enlivened, gesturing for her to join them on their pedestal.

This image demonstrates the extensive and exciting possibilities of the use of allegory within the context of female portraiture – a pictorial device that allowed Reynolds to give women gravity and the chance to play roles that conventional society portraits of the period could not achieve.

By Katherine Birdwood