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By the mid-1770s, Georgiana Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806), was renowned as a celebrity of the age – her extravagant attire and distinctive personality propelled her to the forefront of aristocratic society. Her spectacular dress sense was chronicled in London's newspapers, cementing her status as a key trend-setter in the fashionable world of eighteenth-century society. Described at the time as an 'empress of fashion', Georgiana was also known for her role as an active campaigner for the Whigs, and as a celebrated socialite within elite circles of literary and political figures. Portraiture played an important part in this emerging culture of celebrity – creating and promoting fashions, as well as confirming the Duchess of Devonshire's prominentplace within image-obsessed aristocratic society.

Reynolds's original portrait of the Duchess – upon which this print by Valentine Green was based – formed the centrepiece of the President's submissions to the 1776 Royal Academy exhibition, utilising her fame for his own publicity, while simultaneously reinforcing her status as the most desirable celebrity of the day. In the world of fashion, the Duchess of Devonshire was particularly notorious for her extravagant hair decoration, with its tower of powder, pearls and perfume crowned by her distinctive ostrich feathers. Reynolds incorporated this barometer of fashion into his portrait to emphasise her identity as a fashionable society beauty. The dappled light and areas of shade draw attention to the features of the Duchess which demonstrate eighteenth-century notions of idealised female beauty. Bright light highlights her hands, face and décolletage, emphasising her soft, creamy flesh and a delicacy fitting to an aristocratic woman famed for her physical beauty. The light also accentuates the sumptuous material of her paledress, with its lavishly bunched sleeves and ruched skirts, cinched in at the waist by a frilly sash – rays playing on the gauzy, flimsy fabric of the scarf which floats down from her right shoulder. The extravagant design of her costumewould ensure that it would be talked and written about by fashionable society – and undoubtedly imitated.

The portrait also reinforces her aristocratic otherness – a captivating beauty, existing in a frivolous world of aristocratic fashion and pleasure. Placed firmly in the foreground the Duchess stands, seemingly in the spotlight, isolated from the idyllic, arcadian English landscape behind her. The antique style of her drapery invokes a sense of the classical – revealing that despite her reputation as a trend-setter at the forefront of modern fashion, the Duchess still retains a sense of timelessness as an aristocratic icon. Reynolds dexterously balances celebrity culture and the extravagances of fashion with a sense of aristocratic difference and beauty that withstands the ever-changing tastes of contemporary fashion.

By Rowan Mastin