This striking double portrait shows two sisters, Anne Newdigate (1574–1618) and Mary Fitton (c. 1578–1641). They were the daughters of Sir Edward and Alice Fitton of Gawsworth in Cheshire. The girls’ ages are marked in Latin: Anne (on the left) was 18, while Mary was 15.
Both girls are fashionably dressed in bodices, sleeves and skirts of contrasting black and white fabric. Cherries hang from Mary’s ear, and both sisters have carnations, pansies and other flowers in their hands or tucked in their ruffs.
As was common in this era, Anne was married aged 12, to the 16-year-old Sir John Newdigate. She continued to live with her parents until around 1595, while her husband was sent to Brasenose College, Oxford. A number of Anne’s elegant letters to noblewomen and men have survived in the family archive.
Mary Fitton went on to become a maid of honour at Queen Elizabeth I’s court, but was dismissed after becoming pregnant by William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke. Some critics have proposed that Mary and William could be the ‘Dark Lady’ and ‘Fair Youth’ of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Others strongly deny it.