Notable Irishwomen/The Beautiful Gunnings

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Notable Irishwomen by C. J. Hamilton
The Beautiful Gunnings

Notable Irishwomen - Elizabeth Gunning.png

Photograph by]

[T. F. Geoghegan.




The Beautiful Gunnings.


Maria Gunning (Countess of Coventry), 1733‑1760.

Elizabeth Gunning (Duchess of Hamilton and afterwards Duchess of Argyll), 1734‑1790.

AT the Bal Poudré, given at Dublin Castle in the spring of 1903, two figures were prominent, the Countess of Chesterfield and her sister, Miss Gladys Wilson, who represented the beautiful Gunning sisters—the two Irish beauties who set the fashionable world of London in a blaze, and ended by being, to use Horace Walpole's words, "Countessed and double Duchessed." The luck of the Gunnings has passed into a proverb. Their story is, indeed, far stranger than fiction. The fairy tale of Cinderella and the glass slipper is the only thing that can be compared to it. Their father, John Gunning, of Castle Coote, Co. Roscommon, belonged to a good old Irish family, and through his mother, Catherine Geraghty, he inherited a strain of purely Celtic blood. This good lady brought her husband no less than sixteen children, of whom the father of the beauties was the second son. He was a handsome man, with an aquiline nose, as may be seen from his portrait, which is in the National Portrait Gallery of Dublin. Some lines of his which are appended to his portrait, show the benevolence and kindness of his disposition. He was urged by his friends to go and hear a celebrated singer who was attracting admiring crowds, and his answer was that he could not bring himself to go to any place of amusement while there was so much poverty and distress around him. He concludes his verses, which are rather lengthy, as follows:

"The poor to pity still my heart incline,
For all the good I do, O Lord, is thine I"

He succeeded in winning the heart of Bridget, daughter of the sixth Viscount Mayo. Though the Honourable Bridget had rank, she had little or no fortune. This drawback did not, however, stand in the way of the marriage, and in October, 1731, she became Mrs. Gunning. Her husband was a barrister of the Middle Temple, and was certainly not over-burthened with briefs. He probably succeeded in getting some small appointment in the country, for he settled down at Hemingford Grey, in Huntingdonshire, and here his eldest daughter, Maria, afterwards Countess of Coventry, was born in 1733. Elizabeth, afterwards Duchess of Hamilton, followed the year afterwards, and there were three more daughters, two of whom died young, and then came a son, who subsequently entered the army, fought at Bunker's Hill, and attained the rank of General.

In 1740, by the death of his elder brother, Mr. Gunning succeeded to the property of Castle Coote. The little family now migrated from Hemingford Grey to Roscommon, a formidable journey in those days of stage coaches and sailing boats. Money was not plentiful at Castle Coote, and no wonder, with such numerous charges as there must have been on it. Mrs. Gunning was a clever, ambitious woman, and as she looked at the wonderful beauty of her daughters, fast growing to maturity, she thought that the girls must be taken out into the world to make their mark there. It would never do for them to be thrown away on country squires or struggling attorneys. So she brought them to Dublin, and took a house in Great Britain Street, at that time quite a fashionable locality, within easy reach of Dominick Street, then the head-quarters of high life. But debts soon accumulated. We hear of the woful plight into which the Gunnings fell in these early Dublin days, from the Memoirs of George Anne Bellamy, the popular actress, who was then on a professional visit to Ireland. She says in the stilted, artificial style prevalent in those days:—

"As I was returning one day from rehearsal at the bottom of Britain Street I heard the voice of distress. Yielding to an impulse of humanity I overleaped the bounds of good breeding, and entered the house from whence it proceeded. When I had done this, led by irresistible attraction, I entered without ceremony the parlour, the door of which was guarded by persons not at all suited to those that were within. I here found a woman of most elegant figure, surrounded by four most beautiful girls, and a sweet boy of about three years of age. After making the necessary apologies for my abrupt intrusion, I informed the lady that as the lamentations of her little family had reached my ears as I passed by, I had taken the liberty to inquire if I could render her any assistance.

"Mrs. Gunning, for that was the lady's name, rose immediately from her seat, and calling me by my name, thanked me for my offer of assistance, complimenting me at the same time for possessing such humane sensations. She then informed me that, having lived beyond her income, her husband had been obliged to retire into the country to avoid the disagreeable consequences that must ensue; that she had been in hopes that her brother, Lord Mayo, listening to the dictates of fraternal affection, would not suffer a sister and her family to be reduced to distress, but his lordship remained inflexible to her repeated solicitations. The ill-looking men I now found had entered the house by virtue of execution, and were preparing to throw her and her children out-of-doors."

Good-natured Miss,—or as she is sometimes designated, Mrs.—Bellamy came to the rescue. She lent the Gunnings money, and, according to some accounts, she brought them to her own house and sheltered them there. An intimacy soon sprung up, and a story is told of the two beauties going with Mrs. Bellamy to have their fortunes told by a famous fortune-teller in Capel Street. The scene would make a fine subject for a painter. The prophetess foretold a splendid future for the two girls. Maria was to marry an earl, and to be loved exceedingly; as for Elizabeth, no less than two coronets were promised to her, both of the strawberry leaves of a duchess. To poor George Anne Bellamy, who had slipped a wedding ring on her finger with the object of deceiving the soothsayer, the angry woman cried, "Take off that wedding ring—you never were, you never will be, married!" A few words whispered into the terrified actress's ear completed her dismay. Then the fortune-teller vanished, leaving the two Gunnings in a pleasurable flutter of excitement.

"Sure, I don't care if I am only to be a countess," said silly, artless Maria, "as long as my lord loves me." But prudent Elizabeth said nothing, she always knew when to be silent and when to speak.

A letter from Maria Gunning to Mrs. Bellamy is given in Frances Gerard's interesting book — Some Celebrated Irish Beauties of the Last Century. The spelling and grammar are both atrocious, but it shows that there was friendship between the actress and the future Countess of Coventry.

Here are a few sentences from it:—

"I received my dearest Mrs. Bellamy's letter after her long silence. Indeed, I was very Jealous with you, but you make me amens by Letting me hear from you now.… , Dublin is the stupites [stupidest] place ……

"I beleive Sheridan can get no one to play with him, he is doing all he can to get funds for himsef to be sure, you have heard he is married for sertain to Miss Chamberlain, a sweet pare.

"I must bid adue, and shall only say I am, my Dr. yours ever affectly

M. Gunning."

The Sheridan mentioned in this letter was the father of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who was organising a theatrical company. At one time there was some talk of the two beauties going on the stage; they were introduced by Mrs. Bellamy to Peg Woffington and to Garrick. But Peg Woffington, as she looked at the bright fresh faces of the Gunnings, advised them to leave the theatre alone, she well knew the pit- falls that would await them there. It was said that Peg Woffington lent the Gunnings dresses from her theatrical wardrobe, in which they appeared at Dublin Castle. Whether this be true or not, it is certain that they were presented to the Lord Lieutenant at a birthright ball, and they made such a sensation there that Lord Harrington, then Viceroy, advised their mother to take them to London. This she was only too eager to do. By hook or by crook she got the money together. Through Lord Harrington's influence £150 was obtained from the Irish Establishment, loans were given by friends, and a rich young lady, Miss Plaistow, was put under Mrs. Gunning's chaperonage to be introduced into London society. The year they went to London, the two girls had their portraits painted by Francis Cotes, R.A. They are represented in low-cut, long-waisted, grey satin gowns, with rows of pink rosettes down each side of the bodice, black hair curled at the back and fastened with a string of pearls. A small black patch, is, according to the fashion of the day, on one cheek. We can see from these striking likenesses something of that wonderful beauty which enchanted the world. Both sisters were tall—their enemies said much too tall—with supple slight figures, a peculiarly graceful turn of shoulders and neck, dark liquid hazel eyes, with delicately arched eyebrows, and, above all, a frank triumphant expression of face, which seems to say that they enjoyed life, and found it a pleasure to live. They resembled each other to an extraordinary degree, though Maria was always considered the prettier of the two,while Elizabeth was the cleverer, and had more dignity and discretion. One was 18 and the other 17 when, in April, 1751, they dawned on the London horizon, conquering, and to conquer, in all the dazzling bloom of youth. Horace Walpole says:—"There are two Irish girls, of no fortune, who make more noise than any of their predecessors since the days of Helen, and are declared the two handsomest women alive. I think there being two so handsome, and such perfect figures, is their chief excellence, for singly I have seen much handsomer women than either. However, they can't walk in the park, or go to Vauxhall, but such mobs follow them that they themselves are driven away."

They were presented to the King (George II.) one Sunday afternoon, and another Sunday in the Park, such crowds assembled to gaze on them that Lord Clermont with some other gentlemen, had to draw their swords to protect them from the mob. They were more talked about than the change in the Ministry.

In George Selwyn's Memoirs, he says—"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."

They were quite aware of their own charms. Horace Walpole tells a story that one day when they were going over Hampton Court Palace, the housekeeper, wishing to show the room containing Kneller's pictures of the Hampton Court beauties, cried, "This way for the Beauties!" On this, the sisters flew into a passion, and said they were come to see the palace, and not to be shown off as a sight. Malicious tricks were often played off on them, with a view of injuring them in fashionable society. The Duchess of Bedford was about to give a masquerade, to which the Gunnings were pining to be invited. A sham card of invitation arrived, but their mother soon detected the hoax, for by using a strong chemical to the writing, another name was found underneath. Mrs. Gunning was equal to the occasion. Accompanied by one of her lovely daughters, and with the sham card of invitation in her hand, she called on the Duchess, and to her great joy, she received a genuine invitation to the masquerade. Many admirers had buzzed round the beauties during their first London season. Scotch and Engllsh peers had sighed around them, but no eligible offers had come. Mrs. Gunning took her daughters to Bath, and in a few months they were back again in London in renewed beauty. Mrs. Montagu speaks of seeing these " goddesses of Gunnings wrapped in quilted satin pelisses, their lovely throats hid by rich furs, which set off the brilliancy of their complexions. In this garb the beauties took their noble admirers by storm, and fairly beat down every remnant of prudence."

The Duke of Hamilton was a well-known man about town, of no enviable reputation, fond of gambling and late hours. Horace Walpole says: "that the Duke having fallen in love with Elizabeth Gunning at a masquerade six weeks ago, made such violent love to her to-night, at Lord Chesterfield's, that he saw neither the bank nor his own cards, which were three hundred each, and soon lost a thousand."

Elizabeth Gunning kept cool; she drew the Duke on, bets were freely exchanged on the issue, but finally, one evening, when he found himself alone with her, his ardour grew so great that he insisted that the marriage should take place at once. So it did at half -past twelve, at midnight, on the 14th February, 1752, at May fair Chapel. No wedding ring was procurable at that hour, and,

Notable Irishwomen - Elizabeth Gunning (facing p11).png

Painted by F. Cotes, R.A.]

[Photograph by T. F. Geoghegan.



according to Horace Walpole, they were married with the ring of a bed-curtain.

Just a fortnight afterwards, Maria Gunning became a Countess by her marriage with the Earl of Coventry, who had been dangling about her for many months. Her sister's marriage, no doubt, had precipitated events. These "amazing marriages " were the talk of the town. In the same year, 1752, two murderesses, Mrs. Jefferies and Mrs. Blandy, were hanged at Newgate, and Sir Joshua Reynolds caustically remarked, "The general attention is divided between the two young ladies who were married, and the two young ladies who were hanged."

When the Duchess of Hamilton was presented at court after her marriage, "the noble mob at the Drawing-room clambered upon tables and chairs to look at her." A more beautiful or dignified duchess could not be found. She had two sons and a daughter (afterwards Countess of Derby), and was left a widow in 1759, but her widowhood was of short duration. She was soon engaged to the Duke of Bridgewater, an engagement which was broken off because she would not give up her sister, whose conduct was rather reprehensible. Finally she married Colonel John Campbell, heir to the Duke of Argyll. She still kept her first title, till her husband succeeded to the Dukedom. Horace Walpole says "it was a marriage worthy of Arcadia." The enthusiasm about her beauty still continued. When she visited York, seven hundred people sat up all night to see her get into her post-chaise next morning, and a shoe-maker at Worcester made two guineas and a half in pennies by exhibiting her Grace's shoe to an admiring public.

Lady Coventry, meanwhile, distinguished herself by her silliness as well as by her beauty. She had a perfect genius for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. When the King (George II.) asked her if she were not sorry that there were no more masquerades, she answered, "No, she was tired of them, but there was one thing she did want to see—a coronation!" The King used to tell this story himself with much amusement.

Mrs. Delany, writing in 1754, gives a vivid pen and ink sketch of Lady Coventry's appearance. "Yesterday, after chapel, the Duchess of Portland brought Lady Coventry to feast me, and a feast she was! She is a fine figure, and vastly handsome, notwithstanding a silly look sometimes about her mouth. She has a thousand airs, but with a sort of innocence that diverts one. Her dress was a black silk sack, made for a large hoop, which she wore without any, and it trailed a yard on the ground; she had on a cobweb laced handkerchief, a pink satin long cloak, lined with ermine, mixed with squirrel skins; on her head a French cap, that just covered the top of her head, of blonde, which stood in the form of a butterfly, with its wings not quite extended; frilled sort of lappets were crossed under her chin and tied with pink and green ribbon, a head-dress that would have charmed a shepherd 1 She has a thousand dimples and prettinesses in her cheeks, her eyes a little drooping at the corners, but fine for all that."

Perhaps the most poetical tribute to Lady Coventry's charms was made by the Rev. Richard Mason, in the following lines:—

"Whene'er with soft serenity, she smiled,.
Or caught the orient blush of quick surprise,
How sweetly mutable, how brightly wild,
The liquid lustre darted from her eyes!
Each look, each motion, waked a new-born grace
That o'er her form a transient glory cast;
Some lovelier wonder soon usurped the place,
Chased by a charm, still lovelier than the last!"

After a visit to Paris with her husband, Horace Walpole maliciously says, "Poor Lady Coventry was under disadvantages, for, besides being very silly, ignorant of the world, speaking no French and suffered to wear neither red nor powder, she had that perpetual disadvantage, her lord, who speaks French just enough to show how rude he is."

At a large dinner party in Paris, he chased his wife round the table with a dinner napkin, to wipe off the rouge that she would persist in daubing on her face.

Lady Coventry, though lovable in herself, did not meet with much affection from her husband. He soon wearied of her, and she consoled herself with numerous flirtations, and by the amusements of the card table. Quadrille was her favourite game; she used to play it for four hours a day, and often lost from twenty to thirty pounds at a sitting.

In 1757 she complained to the King that she could not walk in the park, because of the mob that surrounded her, so he ordered a guard to attend her. When she pretended to be frightened, the officer on guard ordered twelve sergeants to march abreast before her, and the sergeant and twelve men behind, "and in this pomp," adds a contemporary writer, "did this idiot walk all the evening with more mob about her than ever, her sensible husband on one side, and Lord Pembroke on the other."

In March, 1859, she was looking in great beauty at her sister's wedding. She showed George Selwyn her new dress for the Drawing-room, blue, with spots of silver the size of a shilling. She asked Selwyn how he liked it, and his answer was "Oh, you will be change for a guinea."

But her days for frivolity and admiration were fast drawing to a close. In August, 1760, she became seriously ill and lingered for some months at Croome Court. It has often been said that Lady Coventry died from the immoderate use of cosmetics in which there was a large quantity of white lead, but consumption was more probably the real cause of her death. Her youngest sister had died of it, and the Duchess of Hamilton's two sons were also victims to the scourge. When confined to bed, Lady Coventry kept a pocket glass under her pillow which she looked at from time to time, so as to note the ravages made by disease in her once lovely features. She died at the early age of 27, leaving a son and two daughters. The public interest in her continued even after her death, for 10,000 people went to see the outside of her coffin.

Her sister, the Duchess of Hamilton, was also threatened with consumption, but a visit to Italy restored her to health again. She was one of the two duchesses appointed to be the escort of the Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, the intended bride of George III. The first time the homely little Princess saw the two duchesses, she asked, "Are all Englishwomen as beautiful as you are?" Her entry into London was made by Mile End Road, and when the Princess heard that her wedding was to take place that evening, she grew so white that lavender water had to be thrown in her face to revive her. Seeing the Duchess of Hamilton smile, the young Princess said, "My dear Duchess, you may laugh, you have been twice married, but it is no joke to me."

When her husband succeeded to the Dukedom of Argyll, Elizabeth Gunning remembered the prophecy of the fortune-teller in Capel Street, for she was doubly a duchess, an honour which only the present Duchess of Devonshire can claim. During the Wilkes riots in 1768 she behaved with great determination. Though her husband was absent and she was in delicate health, she stoutly refused to illuminate her house in Argyll Buildings at the bidding of the mob, who battered the doors and windows for three hours. She could always put down any impertinent people with true aristocratic hauteur. When her daughter, Lady Augusta Campbell, eloped with a Mr. Clavering, Lady Tweeddale saw fit to congratulate her on the event.

"No great joy, madam," she answered, "There was no occasion for Lady Augusta Campbell to marry."

She was the mother of no less than four dukes. Her two sons by her first marriage, James George and Douglas, both became Dukes of Hamilton, and her two sons by her second marriage, George William and John Douglas, both became Dukes of Argyll. The present Duke of Argyll is her direct descendant. What a destiny for a penniless Irish girl! It seemed as though fortune was never tired of pouring gifts on her. The King created her a Peeress in her own right by the title of Baroness Hamilton of Hambledon, in Leicestershire, and she was appointed Lady of the Bedchamber to the Queen. She died at the age of 56, having borne her honours with great dignity. When Dr. Johnson and Boswell paid their celebrated visit to the Hebrides, she received Boswell with great hauteur. He says, that when the duke announced his name to the duchess, who was sitting with her daughter, Lady Betty Hamilton, and some other ladies, she took not the slightest notice of him.

Boswell adds, "When I recollected that my punishment was inflicted by so dignified a beauty, I had that kind of consolation which a man would feel who is strangled by a silken cord." Dr. Johnson was very much pleased with his visit to Inverary Castle. The duchess may have found it necessary to assume this manner, for her own relations were still in a subordinate position. Her youngest sister Kitty generally known as the "youngest of the Graces " married plain Mr, Travis, and was appointed housekeeper at Somerset House, a very lucrative post, which her mother, Mrs. Gunning, held before her.

Never before, or since, has there been such a story as that of the Gunnings. It has tempted many novelists, amongst them Mr. F. Frankfort Moore, who has founded his novel, The Fatal Gift, on some episodes in their romantic career, but to those who like studies from actual life, it is quite as interesting to follow the fortunes of the two sisters, as they are spread out before us in the pages of the history and biographies of that time.

And if we want a lesson, there is surely one to be found—that great beauty does not always bring happiness. Lady Coventry's dying hours are a sad proof of the vanity of human wishes. Even while she was breathing her last breath, her husband was courting her successor. She had not found what she most wished for—a heart that answered to her own.