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'These are my jewels, and the only ornaments I admire; and such ornaments, which are the strength and support of society, add a brighter culture to the fair than all the jewels of the east.'

In 1769 Augusta Anne Ayscough married, and consequently became Lady Cockburn of Layton. This enchanting print – after her portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, which was painted four years later – depicts the sitter in this new period of her life. No longer an eligible, carefree young girlin the public eye, Lady Cockburn has now crossed the threshold of motherhood, and assumed the responsibilities that entails. The marriage came about as theresult of a financial settlement between two families – thus aristocratic wealth was in abundance, and her children representa secure legacy.

Lady Cockburn's velvety, fur-trimmed robeis effortlessly regal and lavish – and the artist has even embellished its front edge with his name and the date – but there is no extravagance in fashion. She wears a simple white dress, and no jewellery; her hair is loosely styled, held in place by a single ribbon, her facial expression attentive and natural. Here, the most striking, significant and cherished ornamentation to her figure are her three children, who tumble sweetly around her. During the transition of this private, intimate image into the public domain of print, the title of the painting was changed to that of 'Cornelia'. Cornelia Africana – the virtuous wife of a Roman politician – was famed for referring to her sons as 'her only jewels,' and her maternal devotion became a common theme in eighteenth-century history painting.

The portrait displays the natural progression of childhood, with each of the offspring represented at a different stage of infancy. The youngest, William, is held closest to her breast – he faces away from the viewer, conveying his lack of identity, fledgling personality and a stronger dependence on his mother. The middle boy, George, is depicted as more alert and in touch with the world. The only figure of the four to look out of the frame, smiling cherubically at us over his mother's shoulder, he explores his surroundings and yet still clings to her for reassurance, at a stage of serene play. The eldest, James, is pictured almost standing with confidence,and appears to listen carefully as his mother speaks, gaining wisdom from her words. He leans back, lips parted as if in speech, one chubby finger pointing upwards, as he prepares to leave her maternal grasp.

The composition draws inspiration from the Old Masters. The pose of the eldest son, for example, is powerfully reminiscent to that of the figure of Cupid in The Rokeby Venus by Velázquez. This allusion to love is further reinforced by referencing the portrayal of Charity as seen in the work of Van Dyck – an artist much admired by the artist. These allegorical influences and inferences add depth to the portrait, creating a tableau of adoration, admiration and nurture.

Lady Cockburn's expression is one of contemplation, as though she is aware of the transient nature of the scene. The group are sheltered from the landscape beyond – they are comfortable, but their pale flesh, highlighted by chiaroscuro, separates them fromtheir grandsurroundings. The macaw is in profile, allowing the delicate detail of its wings to be viewed; often this bird issymbolic of the Virgin Mary, accentuating the importance of charity and morality. Unlike the macaw, which will certainly be kept in an everlasting maternal environment, the children will grow up and move away – with the eldest depicted as furthest from the domesticsphere of sanctuary, as he moves closer to the freedom of maturity.

By Danielle Burke