Wednesday, May 11, 2022

The Gunning Sisters & the Cost of Celebrity

by Nancy Bilyeau

On an autumn day in 1760, a woman's funeral was held in London. So many mourners mobbed the church--one count puts the crowd at ten thousand--that it suggests the burying of a royal. But the deceased was far from royal. 

She was Maria Coventry, born Maria Gunning and raised in obscurity in County Roscommon, Ireland. Yet during the second half of her short life Maria would have been well accustomed to mobs.

The Gunning sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, were beautiful no doubt, but their effect on the population was extreme if not bizarre. We are told that at times they required sword-bearing guards to protect them from fevered crowds, that people stayed up all night to be in position to catch just a glimpse of one descending from a carriage.

In George Selwyn's memoirs, he writes, "Someone proposes a stroll to Betty's fruit shop [in St. James's Street]. Suddenly the cry is raised ' The Gunnings are coming!' and we all tumble out to gaze and criticise."

Horace Walpole wrote of them as "two Irish girls of no fortune who make more noise than any of their predecessors since the days of Helen, and are declared the handsomest women alive."

Aristocratic men who ordinarily would have been keen to make financially prudent marriages ("acre to acre" went the saying) abandoned all pragmatism and fought to marry a penniless Gunning sister within weeks, even days, of coming into contact with her.

Maria married an earl, and Elizabeth married a duke and, after he died, a second duke. 

Attractive young women had caused sensations at the English court before, whether it was Anne Boleyn in the 16th century or Frances Stewart in the 17th century. In the mid-18th century, the fame that was attainable for a young beauty changed in nature, becoming greater in scope and more threatening too.

Maria Gunning
Maria, Countess of Coventry, credit: wikipedia

One of the changes that affected the Gunnings was the growth of the popular press.

"So it was that a free press and a very weak libel law created a climate of speculation and gossip far freer than we have today, far more direct, personal and scurrilous," wrote Stella Tilyard. "Information, paid for by eager editors, poured into publishers' offices and straight into type. Readers were discovering the heady pleasures of scandals in high places."

Along with a bolder press came the rise of the British portrait painter. Sir Joshua Reynolds, first president of the Royal Academy of Arts, is believed to have created the concept of celebrity, "a hybrid of fame driven by commerce and the cult of personality," according to the book Joshua Reynolds: The Creation of Celebrity.

In an article published in The Guardian, curator Louise Cooling writes that "Catherine Maria 'Kitty' Fisher was the most celebrated courtesan in England in the 1760s and was one of the first celebrities to be famous simply for being famous." It was a portrait of Kitty painted by Joshua Reynolds, posing her as Cleopatra dissolving a pearl, that turned her into "an 18th century Kardashian" and "the original influencer," according to The Guardian.

Reynolds' portrait of Kitty Fisher

It was a spectacular portrait of Elizabeth Gunning by Reynolds that brought her a rush of special attention. She sat for the artist for an unusually long time. He worked on the portrait from January 1758 to June of the following year. It is praised by art historians as one of the first examples of Reynolds; "fully realized aesthetics."

It could be fairly argued that it was the Gunning sisters who carry the distinction of being the original influencers. They did inspire a cult of personality.

We know next to nothing of Kitty Fisher's early life. As for the Gunning sisters, much more has been written about their background. But how much of it is accurate is up for debate. Some tales carry a whiff of the apocryphal.

Their father was John Gunning of Castle Coot, yet it does seem clear there was a shortage of money. The mother and children took a house in Dublin while the father hid from creditors. There is one story that an actress, Mrs. Bellamy, heard raised voices on the other side of a wall, rushed inside the strange house to help, interrupted a fight over eviction, and rescued Mrs. Gunning and her "beautiful children" with a loan.

Some reports say the sisters afterward dabbled in acting, others that, when they had the chance to attend a ball in Dublin, their mother begged a theatrical contact to lend her daughters costumes so they could go to the ball. Their own dresses were close to rags. Shades of Cinderella...

Whatever they wore, Elizabeth and Maria caused a sensation at the Dublin ball. Their mother was advised to "take them to London." Somehow she raised the money t do just that.

"Thus the captivating aristocratic Gunning sisters, whose distinguishing feature was that there were two of them, were sent on a carefully managed progress from their home in Ireland to England in 1750 to be launched on the marriage market," wrote Tilyard.

In 1752, both Elizabeth and Maria married two of the most eligible single men in England. They were judged successes--though whether their marriages were happy is another matter.

It was when between Elizabeth was between husbands that she posed for Reynolds. Both sisters were quite tall; Elizabeth's willowy figure in the portrait and fashionable coloring suggest why she might have been so celebrated.

Elizabeth Gunning

Her first husband, the Duke of Hamilton, was a notorious rake and gambling addict who insisted on marriage shortly after meeting her. The second, John Campbell, the Duke of Argyll, was despised by Walpole as "sordidly covetous." Nonetheless, Elizabeth seems to have developed a steeliness about the whole business. She had eight children, served as a Lady of Bedchamber to Queen Charlotte, and died at Argyll House at age 57.

The older sister, Maria, had a different kind of marriage and court career. She possessed an impulsive, outspoken nature that some people found charming. When George II asked her if she were sorry that there were no more masquerades that season, she answered that no she was tired of them, but there was one thing she did want to see—a royal funeral. The King used to tell this story himself "with much amusement."

Her marriage did not turn out to be a happy one. When she and the Earl of Coventry went to France, she began using rouge as the other ladies did, including Madame de Pompadour, but her husband hated it, and once chased her in public to rub it off her face. 

More seriously, the earl had a flagrant affair with none other than Kitty Fisher. Maria, unlike most other aristocratic wives, did not look the other way.

According to one account, "in the park Lady Coventry asked Kitty Fisher for "the name of the dressmaker who had made her dress." Kitty Fisher answered she ..."had better ask Lord Coventry as he had given her the dress as a gift." To that, Maria raged at her "impertinence."

Maria's health deteriorated. While one theory is tuberculosis, another frequently repeated story is that she died of lead poisoning caused by overuse of cosmetics. (This was the same cause of death rumored to strike down her rival Kitty Fisher.) There was no autopsy, so we'll never know.

She didn't slow down willingly. One chronicler wrote, "With all the spirit of a true belle, however, she refused to quit the paths of pleasure, and was seen attending a celebrated murder trial only a few days before she was forced to take to her bed."

Maria Coventry died at the age of twenty-seven.


Nancy Bilyeau wrote about the art world of 1764 London in her historical novel The Fugitive Colours, with Joshua Reynolds and Kitty Fisher appearing as characters. The book was published in the US, the UK, Canada and Australia on March 12th.

"A cracking historical spy thriller."- Historical Novel Society

"Deftly written and deeply atmospheric, The Fugitive Colours is a book 
you'll have trouble putting down!"
--Kate Quinn, New York Times Bestselling Author of The Diamond Eye


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