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Fresh-faced, beautiful, rich, and ringing with future promise – Lady Crewe and LadyBouverie make autopia. These two small faces of privilege are brought together by Reynolds in contemplation of their thirdcompanion – death. 'Et in Arcadia ego' declares the tomb; 'Even in Arcadia I (am there)',– 'I' being death, and 'Arcadia' a mythical utopian land. Lady Crewe and MrsBouverie were two great friends of the Georgian era, born into wealth and status. They sit together in the dappled sunlight and regard a tomb bearing the inscription – an inscription that acts as a 'memento mori', reminding them of the ubiquitous presence of death and indeed, its inexorable nature. Some contemporaries, such as Walpole (see entry 16), suggested that the tomb may be meant to be understood as that of an absent third friend – Lady Coventry – who had recently deceased.

Reynolds draws upon the inspiration of pictorial precedents which include the same inscription, such as those by Poussin and Guercino, to remind us of the inescapable presence of death. The difference between these three images lies in the nature of the utopia depicted – for whilePoussin portrays a group of healthy shepherds within an idyllic pastoral landscape, and Guercino depicts two male shepherds gloomily gazing at a skull atop a tomb, gnawed by a mouse – Reynolds opts instead for two beautiful, contemporary women. Nevertheless, his image conveys the same message – and this is one which inspires contemplation both by those regarding the painting, and those within it, as MrsBouverie regards the tomb.

The dappled light highlights the two faces of the women, and also that of the tomb, which I believe emphasises the three characters in this image – the two women and death. Indeed, there is much that can be read into the shadow which slowly creeps up MrsBouverie's arm, casting much of her body into a sinister darkness, so that it takes a while to notice the limpness of her right hand by her side. Could this use of chiaroscuro be indicative of death, inching its way across the lovely young girls? Lady Crewe clasps her right hand to her breast, moved by the inscription she points to with her other hand, and watches as Lady Bouverie adopts the familiar pose of a thinker, (the pose that Rodin will later replicate in Il Penseroso) – contemplative, calm and thoughtful, head resting on hand. Lady Crewe, not pictured in profile, but facing the viewer with an open, outstretched pose, is dressed in white and mostly illuminatedby the sunlight. Although she is generally considered to be explaining the message to her friend, her tentative expression and open stature make her appear more vulnerable and innocent. Does this depiction of two young girlsinspire the protective instincts of the viewer?

By Helena Kealey