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The female aristocratic portraits of Sir Joshua Reynolds littered the walls of the late eighteenth-century Royal Academy. Beneath the surface of these intriguing and illusory portraits lies a complexity that is at once challenging and astounding. Mrs John Parker's portrait, which waspainted by Reynolds in 1770-72to hang in Robert Adam's saloon at Saltram House, is no exception. Stylistically, the image would have been highly appealing to the learned, aristocratic contemporary audience. Visitors to the exhibition would have admired Parker's sumptuous fashion sense and the presence of elements from antiquity, such as the classical vase. Although Parker's body appears relatively at ease as she leans against the stone pedestal, she is depicted gently feeling her own pulse. This gesture renders her almost lachrymose, as she is likely to be contemplating her own mortality. Reynolds's portrayal of the pastoral landscape surrounding Parker further contributes to this mournful ambiance; rather than being expansive, the horizon is obscured by the domineering mass of trees which engulf Parker in a melancholic shade.

A further fascinating element of this print after Reynolds's portrait is the play of light upon Parker's face. The profile pose and illumination ensure that exactly half of her face is on display to the audience, whilst the other half remains hidden, and thus shrouded in mystery. This visual device conveys Parker's reflective and contemplative state, perhaps more specifically relating to her own status or identity. She is adorned in a lavish dress, but is not cast in a specific role like many of Reynolds's other portraits of this kind. She is not involved in an allegory, but is instead depicted at the foot of a path of contemplation. A darker theme pervades the image, represented formally by the use of dark chiaroscuro and the harsh silhouette created by her facial profile – a feature frequently found in funerary portraiture at the time. Set in context, these allusions become all the more distressing, as Parker died in 1775 – just two years after her portrait was first exhibited – following the birth of her daughter Theresa. Reynolds succeeds in capturing the good nature and status exemplified by Mrs Parker, whilst simultaneously evoking her fragility.

By Becky Timmins