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The large format of this unfinished painting would normally be used for grand portraits of the rich or famous, instead of the working-class woman shown here. In fact, there is a tradition that the woman is the wealthy Hon Mrs Graham in fancy dress.  

Whether it is a fancy-dress portrait or a depiction of a working woman, the painting raises some intriguing questions. Does it simply pander to fantasies of dignified poverty or encourage true sympathy for ordinary people? Is this a kind of voyeuristic ‘pin-up’, or a powerful image of a real social type?

September 2004