Seeing Double: The Lake Twins Meet the Cholmondeley Ladies

Phoebe and Lydia Lake are artists. They’re also iden­ti­cal twins, which means they know a thing or two about sym­me­try. So last year, when they were 20 years old, the Tate Britain decid­ed to film their first encounter with one of the muse­um’s most famous hold­ings, The Chol­monde­ley Ladies, paint­ed some­time around 1600–1610 by an unknown artist. An inscrip­tion describes the ladies as mem­bers of the Chol­monde­ley fam­i­ly (pro­nounced “Chum­ley”) who were born on the same day, mar­ried on the same day and “brought to bed” (gave birth) on the same day. The sharply defined, rigid­ly sym­met­ric com­po­si­tion depicts two very sim­i­lar but not iden­ti­cal women (per­haps fra­ter­nal twins) dressed in exquis­ite Jacobean fin­ery, hold­ing their babies. In his essay, “The Per­cep­tion of Sym­me­try,” arts writer Michael Bird describes his own first reac­tion to the paint­ing when he was a boy:

The two win­try revenants, propped elbow to elbow in bed with their glow­ing babies, made a deep impres­sion. The blanched gor­geous­ness of their out­fits, blood­ed by the hot roy­al red of the chris­ten­ing gowns, was part of it. So was the spooky incon­gruity of vivid faces look­ing out from the pic­ture’s steam-ironed one-dimen­sion­al­i­ty, as though two peo­ple were stand­ing behind it, stick­ing their heads through holes in the board. Main­ly, though, it was their dou­ble­ness.

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  • I don’t know why I found this so inter­est­ing. I read the arti­cle and watched the video and then I found myself read­ing it more care­ful­ly a sec­ond time and then a third. I want­ed to know more about the Chol­monde­ley Ladies and the Lake sis­ters, who by the way, are adorable.

    For some rea­son the sto­ry tapped into one of those places in my imag­i­na­tion where strange and pos­si­bly mag­i­cal things can hap­pen. Thanks for shar­ing.

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