The Cholmondeley Ladies is currently on display at the Tate Britain in London and is described by their curator, Karen Hearn, as “a great favorite with the public … one of our iconic works.” In assessing this popularity, Hearn points toward the ‘linearity’ and ‘subject matter’ of the work for explanation.1 Yet, neither of these features is what sets this painting apart from the norm-family portraits dealing with such topics as marriage and childbirth were relatively common in early modern England. Rather, I would posit that two other features of this work, which Hearn alludes to, make this painting a unique object of fascination. The questions surrounding the painting comprise the first feature. As Hearn describes, the work is “full of mysteries, full of puzzles.”2 Not much is definitively known in relation to The Cholmondeley Ladies. Because of its style, it can be dated between 1600 and 1610. However, the artist and, moreover, the subjects, though presumably members of the Cholmondeley family, remain unknown. Such mystery adds to the appeal of the piece; although the most striking element of the painting and arguably the main reason it attracts so much interest is the extreme likeness of its subjects. The painting depicts two women sitting up in bed, each holding an infant. Sat side by side, they are almost mirror images of one another. Such a pose was common in tomb sculptures of the time, though it is not known to be used in any other British painting. The portrait’s inscription also emphasizes the parallel that is created between these women and their children. It reads, “Two Ladies of the Cholmondeley Family, Who were born the same day, Married the same day, And brought to Bed the same day.”3 Apart from this inscription, there is no surviving evidence to substantiate exactly how these women and their children were related; thus, it is impossible to know whether they are in fact twins or relations that are more distant. Close inspection of the painting reveals subtle differences between the sitters, such as eye color and jewelry. Despite this, at first glance, the subjects appear identical and, as Hearn describes, members of the public generally assume the women to be twins.4 I would argue that this feature of the portrait, the likeness between its sitters, emphasized through both their pose and the painting’s caption, defines this work and makes it a
continued object of fascination; furthermore, this particular portrayal of likeness participates in a larger pattern of fascination with twin likeness that existed in the early modern period.