‘‘To be sure we do not move in the very best circles,’ Mrs Garland admitted with some difficulty, ‘but it didn’t do the Gunning sisters any harm did it? I’ve seen a painting of the one that married two Dukes and I’m sure that my Anastasia is twice the beauty that she was. She will certainly be much richer!’
Sidonie smiled faintly but she inwardly cursed the existence of the celebrated Gunning sisters, a pair of impoverished but exquisitely beautiful Irish girls from a similar background, she imagined, to Mrs Garland, who had taken English society by storm a few decades earlier and married into the aristocracy. Ever since then the two Gunnings had been twin deities to ambitious mamas everywhere and a byword for serious social mobility.’
The legendary Gunning sisters were both born in around 1733 in Hemingford Grey in Cambridgeshire and were two of the five daughters of an Irish gentleman, John Gunning and his wife the Hon. Bridget Bourke, daughter of the 6th Viscount Bourke.
In 1740, when the girls were both still very small the family decamped back to their father’s native Ireland where they lived in a rented house in Dublin. Mrs Gunning appears to have been just the same sort of ambitious mama as those who would later be inspired by her and was determined that her girls, who were inordinately beautiful, should do well in life.
However, the relative poverty of the family was against them and it seems that abandoning the idea of their being able to make advantageous matches with rich men, she decided that they should both become actresses and seek their fortunes on the stage.
However, whatever the truth of this is, the two Gunning girls made their debut into high society in October 1748 when they attended Viscountess Petersham’s ball at Dublin Castle. Their parents were too poor to be able to afford proper ball gowns so Thomas Sheridan, manager of the Theatre Royal in Dublin (and father of the famous playwright, Sheridan) took pity on them and loaned them dresses from the theatre wardrobe so that one of the girls went in the costume of Juliet and the other in that of Lady Macbeth.
This could have gone badly wrong but the girls were an instant and phenomenal success. During the course of the evening they were introduced to the Earl of Harrington, who would later bestow a sizeable pension on their mother, which proved to be enough to allow for the family to return to England, where they proceeded to bewitch the small society of their native Huntingdon.
Word of the gorgeous and charming Gunning sisters soon spread to London and their mother, keen to advance her daughters as much as possible, soon moved the family there to make the most of their new found celebrity and status as the eighteenth century equivalent of It Girls. It is said that they had to be closely guarded by a military escort whenever they went out anywhere as they were literally mobbed by dozens of people, all crowding close to stare at them. The fact that they were sisters, possibly twins, probably had much to do with their appeal.
In an almost dizzying rise in fortunes, the two sisters were presented to George II at St James’ palace on the 2nd December 1750 while the courtiers stood on chairs in order to gawp at them both and their social success seemed assured. All that was needed now was for them both to make amazing matches.
In the new year of 1752, Elizabeth Gunning was presented at a masquerade to the 6th Duke of Hamilton, who was described by Walpole as ‘hot, debauched, extravagant, and equally damaged in his fortune and person.’ He was instantly smitten with her blonde loveliness. It is said that the couple were both present at a ball at Bedford House just a month later on Valentine’s Day and the young Duke, who was probably intoxicated in more ways than one, loudly and publicly declared his intention of making the blushing Elizabeth his bride and demanded that a parson be called for. He was only dissuaded from this romantic object when it was pointed out that he required a license to proceed.
Undaunted, the besotted couple jumped into a carriage and went off to Mayfair Chapel, for which a license was not required, and were married in secret. It probably wasn’t the grand wedding that Mrs Gunning had envisioned for her daughter, but nonetheless she was a Duchess now and that was all that mattered.
Maria’s wedding followed a month later, when she was married to the 6th Earl of Coventry. She and her husband went off to Paris for their honeymoon, where her beauty was to cause a sensation. However, the new Countess was rather less than fond of the French capital and pined for England, her unhappiness exacerbated by the increasingly controlling behaviour of her husband who would not allow her to wear rouge and didn’t think twice about publicly wiping it off her cheeks if she should appear with it on.
When they finally returned to London, she was dismayed to find that her husband had taken as his mistress the decidedly beauteous Kitty Fisher, which led to this unfortunate exchange in Hyde Park, which was recorded by an eyewitness, Guistiniana Wynne:
‘The other day they ran into each other in the park and Lady Coventry asked Kitty 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.” The altercation continued with Lady Coventry calling her an impertinent woman, and Kitty replying that she would have to accept this insult because Maria became her ‘social superior’ on marrying Lord Coventry, but she was going to marry a Lord herself just to be able to answer back.’
Maria was very upset by her husband’s unfaithfulness and began to take her own lovers in part out of loneliness but also, one feels, to ‘get back’ at him. It must have been very horrible for someone who was so used to wholehearted admiration and who was used to being adulated for her beauty to be married to someone who could not stay true to her.
In contrast, her sister Elizabeth’s marriage seems to have been a very happy one despite its ramshackle beginnings. Sadly though her Duke was to die on the 17th January 1758 after less than six years of marriage, after catching a cold while hunting. He was just thirty three. His widow, Elizabeth was left with three young children, one of whom, not quite three year old James, was now Duke of Hamilton.
It didn’t take her long to get engaged again, which is fair enough as the position of a lovely young widow in charge of small children was a vulnerable one. Her suitor was another duke, that of Bridgwater but the match was to fall apart and the engagement broken. Elizabeth then swiftly moved on and a year later she was married again, this time to the Marquess of Lorne.
Maria however was to tragically die at the age of twenty seven on the 30th of September 1760, probably as a result of lead and arsenic poisoning from the heavy cosmetics that she liked to use, in defiance of her husband. It was a tragic end to a really quite amazing life and probably terrified a lot of society ladies as well as they were all rather fond of their rouge and face paints. The news of her death was greeted by widespread mourning and it’s said that over ten thousand people turned up to see her coffin.
In contrast, Elizabeth was to be appointed Lady of the Bedchamber to Queen Charlotte in 1761, a post that she would hold until 1784. Her husband would become Duke of Argyll in 1770 after the death of his father, which meant that the beautiful Elizabeth became a Duchess for the second time.
She would eventually die at the age of fifty seven on the 20th of December 1790 at Argyll House in London.
Quote at the start taken from my very own book Before the Storm about Georgian social climbing and shenanigans in an age of Revolution, nice hats and plentitudes of cake.