Sunday, 16 October 2011

I Was an Only Twin

Yesterday, we spoke about the image of a reflected woman in a glass and how the Victorian were frightened and fascinated by the double. Today then, we shall talk about a more straightforward double image, the image of female twins in Victorian art, and how sometimes your sister is yourself.

Twins (1875-6) J E Millais
Kate and Grace Hoare are possibly the best known twins in Victorian art, and are a good starting place for a discussion of how to paint two women who look alike. It was commented that to paint twins such as the Hoare girls was the greatest test to an artist: ‘the rare skill of the painter has succeeded in giving to each twin a marked and distinctive individuality’ proclaimed the Daily Telegraph at the exhibition of the paining in 1878. It was remarked that one twin seemed at ease, removing her hat and relaxing, while the other, the one with the dog whip (yes, dog whip) was more attentive and alert. I think Millais’ portraits are a good argument against his lessening power in his later work, as the faces of the twins are beautifully realised and look at the detail on the dog whip (really? A dog whip?). The painting says that the girls may well be almost identical in looks but in personality they differ greatly. How about this image…?

 The Travelling Companions (1862) Augustus Egg
Two women travel first class by rail, one sleeping and one reading. Hang on, they are dressed identically, so possibly they are twins. They place their hats on their laps in a similar manner and sit in a similar manner, their skirts breaking like waves against the far wall of the compartment. How sure are you that this is a picture of two girls? It’s possible that Egg had one model who he moved around to get the different poses, so could this not be a portrait of a journey rather than of two women? I would argue that the woman slept facing the sun, then moved to read her book, with the light coming from behind her. Her companions are the oranges, the flowers and the book, the things she brought with her to make the journey more tolerable, but maybe what she really wanted was some company.

Ida and Ethel (1884) James Sant
At first look I thought this was a Millais, but it is the lovely Ida and Ethel, again displaying how different they are, even though they look alike and are dressed alike. One dreams while the other reads, one stands while the other sits, but that is all there is to separate them, and still we get a perfect portrait of two women who happen to share facial characteristics but are distinct. Rather like this…

Long Mary (1860) G F Watts
 Hang on, this is a double portrait, not a picture of twins, but the same rules apply somehow. You see two expressions on the same face, two different temperaments on an identical woman in identical clothes. It is in the skill of the artist to show you the same woman but different, to make you realise that what you are looking at is the same face only with a slightly different attitude. Mary has become her own twin. She stands in the same space as a woman who shares her features. While this is arguably just an exercise in painting his model from different angles, it does utilise some of the characteristics of twins’ portraiture.

The Sisters (1884) Abbott Thayer
Faces at slightly different angles, bodies posed in slightly different ways, in many ways this is no different to Mary’s double portrait. I looked hard for a double portrait of a man, or for male twins, but although they must exist, I was damned if I could find them (other than Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee). Why the fascination with a double woman? As we saw yesterday, one woman and her reflection causes enough trouble, why delight in two women who could pass as one? Well, twins are a perfectly natural part of life, so need not cause alarm. On the face of it, Kate and Grace Hoare are just two sisters, but there had to be differences applied to them – the removal of the hat, the different flowers, details that help the uninformed viewer tell them apart, because despite looking identical, twins are two different people. So let’s dress them alike!

 The Two Sisters (1834) Theodore Chasseriau
When a little less effort has been made by the artist to tell the women apart, then the disconcerting aspect of the pictures comes a little more into view. Even though these two have markedly different faces, I find them less individual than the Hoares. Possibly it’s the locking of arms that makes me take a breath in and think ‘That is two women, right?’ and as I’m typing and the image is scrolling off screen, all I can see is one being of orange dress and alabaster limbs and I couldn’t tell you which head went on which body.

Georgina Treherne (1856) G F Watts
Take for example these two: one sister reading to the other while she sleeps. I like to think that she has sung her sister to sleep. Only it’s not two women. It’s the same bloody woman. Like Mary, this is possibly just a practice of painting Watts’ model in different poses, but in this case, the woman on the left seems to intrude into the area of the woman on the right, as if to talk to her. They exist in the same place at the same time. She is her own twin.

The Sisters (1906) Harold Cazneaux
Could it be a comment on the nature of women? Women are two-faced, are fragments bound into a whole? Possibly the idea of women’s fragility comes from the notion that they are a loosely grouped construct of facets that cling to each other desperately in order to keep the show together. Are women essentially unknowable as you are never talking to the entirety, but the face that is facing you at that moment. The other part of her might be asleep or reading. I think that the pleasure and fascination found in twin portraits (be they of one or two women) is that there are two beautiful women looking at you and you have to guess if they are the same or different.

I’ll leave you with what might be not only the most unsettling twins portrait I found, but what might be ranked as one of the most scary pictures ever painted. All I know for sure is that neither of these two should ever, ever be given a dog whip…

Winifred and Leonora Reid (1920) Thomas Garine


  1. Great post - lots to think about.

  2. Yes fascinating,I loved that Wayys painting!

  3. I should just point out that Winifred and Leonora were most probably lovely little girls and in no way resemble the sisters from The Shining. Thank you for your comments !

  4. What an interesting post! I stumbled upon it because Millais' painting is one of my favorites.


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx