Wednesday, September 9, 2015

12 Portraits, Some Old Time Beauties - Maria Gunning, Countess of Coventry

Maria Gunning, Countess of Coventry (1733 – 30 September 1760) was a famous London beauty and society hostess during the reign of King George II. Born Maria Gunning in Hemingford Grey, Huntingdonshire, Maria's beginnings were humble. She would go on to become one of the most celebrated beauties of her day.

File:Mary Gunning, Countess of Coventry.jpg
Jean-Étienne Liotard (1702–1789)
Portrait of Maria Gunning, Countess of Coventry (1733-1760)
(also titled Portrait of a pensive woman on a sofa and Portrait of a young woman in Turkish costume sitting on a couch
Date 1749
Medium pastel on parchment
23.5 × 19 cm (9.3 × 7.5 in)
Museum of Art and History, Geneva

In late 1740 or early 1741, the Gunning family returned to their ancestral home in Ireland, where they divided their time between their home in Roscommon, and a rented house in Dublin. When Maria and her sister Elizabeth came of age, their mother urged them to take up acting in order to earn a living, owing to the family's relative poverty. The Gunning sisters worked for some time in the Dublin theatres, even though acting was not considered a respectable profession as many actresses of that time doubled as courtesans to wealthy benefactors.

The Comtesse de Coventry in Turkish dress, signed by Fleming after Liotard, London, dated 1820 pastel on paper laid down on canvas 74.5 by 62cm.:
The Comtesse de Coventry in Turkish dress
signed by Fleming after Liotard, London
pastel on paper laid down on canvas
74.5 by 62cm.

In October 1748, a ball was held at Dublin Castle by the Viscountess Petersham. The two sisters did not have any dresses for the gathering until the manager of one of the local theatres supplied them with two costumes, those of Lady Macbeth and Juliet. Wearing the costumes, they were presented to the Earl of Harrington, the then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Harrington must have been pleased by the meeting as, by 1750, their mother had persuaded him to grant her a pension, which she then used to transport herself, Maria, and Elizabeth, back to their original home in Huntingdon, England. 

Sir Joshua Reynolds
The Comtesse de Coventry
Oil on Canvas

With their attendance at local balls and parties, the beauty of the two girls was much remarked upon. They became well-known celebrities, their fame reaching all the way to London. On 2 December 1750, they were presented at the court of St James. By this time, they were sufficiently famous that the presentation was noted in the London newspapers. 

Hugh Douglas Hamilton
The Comtesse de Coventry
Oil on Canvas
Courtauld Institute of Art, London UK

Maria, who was notoriously tactless, was reported to have made a notable gaffe by telling the elderly George II that the spectacle she would most like to see was a royal funeral. Fortunately the King was highly amused.

Portrait of Maria Gunning Countess of Coventry
made in Paris (during her honeymoon) 
by Quentin de la Tour in 1752

In March 1752, Maria married the 6th Earl of Coventry and became the Countess of Coventry. For their honeymoon, the Earl and Countess traveled around Europe. Maria particularly disliked Paris. The Countess's ignorance of the French language and her husband's decision not to allow her to wear red powder as make-up (which was fashionable in Paris at the time) intensified her dislike of the city and the trip. 

Mary Gunning, Lady Coventry

Maria's popularity and beauty was such, that on her return to London, she was mobbed when she appeared in Hyde Park and was eventually given a guard by the King, led by the Earl of Pembroke. Her husband became involved with then famous courtesan Kitty Fisher, which caused Maria much distress. Maria, also, became involved in at least one affair. 

Kitty Fisher, by Nathaniel Hone, 1765 - NPG 2354 - © National Portrait Gallery, London
Nathaniel Hone (24 April 1718 – 14 August 1784)
Kitty Fisher
c. 1765
Oil on canvas, 
29 1/2 in. x 24 1/2 in. (749 mm x 622 mm)
National Portrait Gallery, London

"London" claimed that Kitty Fisher's origins were ''low and mean'' and that by trade she was a milliner. Her origins were, at any rate, obscure -she most probably came from Germany- and she was introduced to Society by an army officer, Ensign (later Lieutenant-General) Anthony George Martin. She swiftly acquired a reputation as a beauty, a wit and a daring horsewoman.

Nathaniel Hone (24 April 1718 – 14 August 1784)
Portrait of Catherine Maria ''Kitty'' Fisher
c. 1760s
Oil on canvas
18th Century
23 1/2 x 19 1/2 inches 60 x 49.5 cm

Her impact on London was plainly considerable, as in the years 1759-1760 a number of satirical broadsheets took her as their theme. The effect of this was such that in March 1759 there appeared in the Public Advertiser an appeal signed C. Fisher against ''the baseness of little scribblers and scurvy malevolence,'' which complains that she has been ''abused in public papers, exposed in print shops.'' 

Nathaniel Hone (24 April 1718 – 14 August 1784)
Portrait of Catherine Maria ''Kitty'' Fisher
c. 1750–1784
Oil on canvas
75.8 x 62.4 cm
Canterbury City Council Museums and Galleries

Some years later she took to a less controversial existence, marrying John Norris, MP for Rye, and devoting herself to rebuilding her husband's fortunes. She died in Bath in 1767 -reputedly from the effects of white lead face-paints- and gave a celebrated instruction to be placed in the coffin wearing her best dress. More

Datei:Kitty Fisher and parrot, by Joshua Reynolds.jpg
Sir Joshua Reynolds, PRA FRSA (16. Juli 1723 - 23. Februar 1792)
Kitty Fisher
About 1763-64
Oil on canvas
99.1 × 77.5 cm
Bowood House, Wiltshire, United Kingdom

She continued to utilize heavy make-up, simply because it was stylish. Had she paid heed to her husband's actions against her wearing lead-based make-up in Paris for the rest of her days, her death eight years later (at the age of 27) might not have been so early. However, throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, it was fashionable for ladies to have pale white skin and red rouged cheeks and use lead as a basis for their make-up. It was the noxious effects of the lead which caused skin eruptions (which also encouraged ladies to powder their skins more vigorously to mask their blemishes) and eventually blood-poisoning which killed Maria on 30 September 1760. Originally known simply as a beautiful but vain woman, she eventually became known in society circles as a "victim of cosmetics". More

Sir Joshua Reynolds
Barbara (née St John), Countess of Coventry
Oil on Canvas
Faringdon Collection, Buscot Park

Barbara (née St John), Countess of Coventry, by James Watson, after  Sir Joshua Reynolds, (1764-1765) - NPG D34193 - © National Portrait Gallery, London
James Watson, after Sir Joshua Reynolds
Barbara (née St John), Countess of Coventry
mezzotint, (1764-1765)
20 3/8 in. x 14 3/8 in. (516 mm x 365 mm)
National Portrait Gallery, London

Four years later, her husband remarried to another London beauty, Lady Barbara St John. Ironically, in 1768, Kitty Fisher (the rival of Maria Gunning) also died of poisoning due to cosmetics.