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When considering the significance of the concept of fashion in Joshua Reynolds's portraiture of the eighteenth-century, his depiction of Lady Bampfylde serves as an effective example of the typical conventions of contemporary female representation. This portrait, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1777, presents Lady Catherine Bampfylde (1754-1832), and is most probably a commemoration piece celebrating her marriage to Charles Warwick Bampfylde in the previous year. Such portraits not only contributed to the definition of what was considered beautiful and desirable in society, but also aimed, through association, to emulate and reflect classical antiquity in the representation of aristocratic females. Ultimately Reynolds's ambition – through the imitation of classical ideals in popular prints such as this one – was to raise the status ofportraiture to the 'Grand Style'. The engaging, elaborate nature of the portrait, replete with classical connotations, served to reinforce Reynolds's intention of presenting a model of fashionable public and civic virtue – one that drew powerfully upon the influence of antique sculpture.

More specifically, in his depiction of LadyBampfylde's pose, Reynolds manipulates and adapts a pose made universally famous by the Venus de Medici statue – here reversing the positioning of the classical goddess's arms, which paradoxically highlights her overt sexuality while ostensibly emphasising her modesty and purity. Reynoldsemulates the ubiquitous classical pose with almost mirror-like accuracy, from the gesture of the hands to the tilted head and direction of the gaze, and this evocation works to endow the sitter with the qualities of the classical goddess, who was considered quintessentially desirable and attractive – it is in effect a direct reflection of what beauty constituted.

An awareness of the context behind this image, namely Lady Bampfylde's engagement, further reinforces the appropriateness of emulating the classical goddess of love and marriage. Moreover, the deliberate inclusion of the lily, to which Lady Bampfylde's right hand gestures,which is considereda symbol of purity, again foreshadows the imminent union – though perhaps the dark shadow which creeps up the stem of the plant indicates the loss of her virginity and purity once she is married. The flowing white drapery of her dress, moulded to her figure, which is emphasised through the use of chiaroscuro, appears almost sculpted and marble-like – and this, along with the proximity of the stone pedestal against which she leans – accentuates the allusion to classical statuary. The unrealistically impractical length of her pseudo-classical dress, and elaborated styled hair, suggests that this scene is a type of performance, in which Lady Bampfylde plays the starring role. In terms of the setting, she is presented in an idealised English landscape, and the dark foliage of the backdrop serves to illuminate her pale silhouette.

Reynolds's innovative technique of integrating the figure into the landscape is prominent here, as Lady Bampfyldeis portrayed leaning against a stone plinth,gazing through the canvas in contemplation, though her posture suggests animation, as if she is in mid-movement. Reynolds's intentional emulation of classical sculpture, posture and drapery, evident within LadyBampfylde's portrait,not only reinforces his desire to associate his profession with that of antiquity – it also enables the image to convey a twofold message, which engages with a current fashionable female ideal, as well as a definition of beauty that draws its inspiration from ancient models.

By Katherine Ready