British School 17th century

The Cholmondeley Ladies

c.1600–10

On display at Tate Britain

Medium
Oil paint on wood
Dimensions
Support: 886 x 1723 mm
frame: 1074 x 1914 x 100 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Presented anonymously 1955
Reference
T00069

Summary


The painting depicts two young women sitting up in bed, fully dressed, each holding an infant. They are traditionally said to be sisters, although the different coloured eyes of the ladies and children show that they are not identical twins. The babies are swaddled in red christening robes.

The painting was known to be in the collection of Thomas Cholmondeley (pronounced 'Chumley'), the third son of Sir Hugh (died 1601) and Lady Mary Cholmondeley, who was an ancestor of the last Lord Delamere of Vale Royal, Cheshire. George Ormerod, in his description of the former monastery of Vale Royal (History of Cheshire, 1882, II, pp.154-5), noted 'In the passage leading to the sleeping rooms ... an antient painting of two ladies, said to be born and married on the same day, represented with children in their arms'. Although Ormerod gave detailed information about the Holford and Cholmondeley family pedigrees he made no attempt to identify the sitters in this portrait. The style of the painting would seem to date it to c.1600-10, and it might represent daughters or nieces of Sir Hugh and Lady Mary Cholmondeley; there is nothing in the genealogical tables published by Ormerod either to support or refute the assumption that the sitters were twins. They might only have married into the Cholmondeley family and the fact that they shared the same birthday could be explained as pure coincidence. Nevertheless, they share a strong resemblance.

Family group portraits of this type were popular in the Elizabethan and early Stuart periods. Traditionally employing emblems or symbols to show identity and status, they rarely offered psychological insights into the sitters. The pose is not known to have been used in any other British painting, but was frequently seen in tomb sculpture. John Hopkins (1991) suggests that the portrait may show two sisters, Lettice Grosvenor (1585-1612) and Mary Calveley (died 1616), who were the daughters of Sir Hugh Cholmondeley (1552-1601) and Mary Holford (1563-1625). The evidence is not definitive, however, and the identities of the sitters, like that of the painter, remain a mystery.

Further reading:

John T. Hopkins, '"Such a Twin Likeness there was in the Pair": An Investigation into the Painting of the Cholmondeley Sisters', reprinted from Transactions of the Historical Society of Lancashire and Cheshire [for the Year 1991], vol.141, pp.1-37, reproduced opposite p.1

Terry Riggs
March 1998

Display caption

According to the inscription (bottom left), this painting shows ‘Two Ladies of the Cholmondeley Family, Who were born the same day, Married the same day, And brought to Bed [gave birth] the same day’. To mark this dynastic event, they are formally presented in bed, their babies wrapped in scarlet fabric. Identical at a superficial glance, the lace, jewellery and eye colours of the ladies and infants are in fact carefully differentiated. The format echoes tomb sculpture of the period. The women, whose precise identities are unclear, were probably painted by an artist based in Chester, near the Cholmondeley estates.

Gallery label, February 2016

Audio

The Cholmondeley Ladies - British School 17th century

What do we know about this painting? Curator Karen Hearn
Video

The Cholmondeley Ladies (artist unknown)

Lydia and Phoebe Lake (identical twins), share an uncommon affinity with the subject of this film.

Video

The Cholmondeley Ladies (artist unknown)

Tate curator, Karen Hearn talks about the mysteries surrounding this painting.

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