Stella Tillyard has written of the cult of celebrity that developed in eighteenth century London, partly as a consequence of the proliferation of entertainment spaces and liberal publishing laws. Gossip became a currency and artists used their talents to create visual statements of their sitters’ allure (though portraits of aristocratic women exhibited at the Royal Academy were done so without reference to the sitters’ names). Amongst the most beautiful were the Gunning sisters Maria and Elizabeth who left Ireland in 1750 to secure husbands in London. Allegedly, 8,000 people turned up to see them at Vauxhall Gardens. The Duke of Hamilton was so taken with Elizabeth he insisted on marrying her the night they met; Maria married the Earl of Coventry.

Another woman who inspired devotion was courtesan Kitty Fisher (artist Nathaniel Hone puns here on her name: the cat fishes in a goldfish bowl in this 1765 portrait, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London). She staged a riding accident in Hyde Park as a way of displaying her pretty legs… read Marcia Pointon’s fascinating paper on her.

These women’s paths crossed on at least one occasion when Lady Coventry (Maria Gunning) asked Kitty Fisher for the name of her dress maker. “You had better ask Lord Coventry,” Kitty Fisher replied. “He gave me the dress as a gift.”


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