Elizabeth Gunning, Duchess of Hamilton and Argyll
With her long dark hair, pale skin and delicate features, this woman was a famed beauty. Her name was Elizabeth Gunning, and despite her family having little money or connections, she and her sister became the toast of Georgian society – initially as actresses in their native Dublin. After moving to London in 1750, they soon became the talk of the town there too, and two years later, Elizabeth married the 6th Duke of Hamilton. They met in January 1752 and – following a rollercoaster romance – got married in an impromptu ceremony on Valentine's Day. Six years had passed when this portrait was painted, and life had moved on for Elizabeth: she had had three children and had just been widowed. Nonetheless, she's shown here, not as a grieving wife but as the celebrated beauty. Her red and ermine robe is a reminder of her high social position - as a peeress, while her loosely draped gown recalls classical sculpture. Notice too the doves on the right, the symbol Venus, goddess of love; and the sculpted relief on the left, which shows Venus being chosen as the most beautiful goddess by the shepherd Paris – both references to Elizabeth's beauty. The artist, Joshua Reynolds, often included such clever references in his portraits. And his portrait did indeed serve its purpose because the following year, Elizabeth got married once again, to the future 5th Duke of Argyll, and went on to have a further five children.