Sunday, 22 March 2015

Rags to Riches: The true story of Elizabeth and Maria Gunning

In 18th century Georgian high society, a well to-do-lady aspired to catch herself a titled husband. With fierce competition from other, equally ambitious debutantes to attract the eye of an eligible bachelor, interlopers were discouraged and frozen out of society. Which makes the story of the Gunning sisters, Maria and Elizabeth all the more unusual.
Elizabeth Gunning, after her marriage 
The two sisters were genteel nobodies: the daughters of an Irishman with neither money nor connections, and yet they did have one attribute in abundance – they were great beauties. When they were old enough, they worked in a Dublin theatre to help boost the family income. This was a potentially disastrous move for their reputations because most actresses were considered harlots. However, they survived the risk and were invited to a ball at Dublin castle.
The story goes that they had no money for ball gowns. But the theatre manager, Tom Sheridan, came to the rescue and leant them the Juliette and Lady Macbeth costumes to wear. Once at the ball they made such an impression on the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland that he granted their mother a reasonable pension.
Elizabeth Gunning

Mrs Gunning used the money to take her daughters to England, and their house in Huntingdon. They attended local assemblies, and created such a sensation that word of them spread ahead to London.
With a reputation akin to that of a modern celebrity, the sisters entered London society feted as beauties – and took it by storm. This was unusual for the day, where manners, breeding, grace, and connections dictated how ‘beautiful’ a lady was. But more than that, they did the unthinkable and completed a rags to riches story by snagging aristocrats for husbands.
Elizabeth again

In 1752, after a whirlwind romance, Elizabeth married the Duke of Hamilton, and went on to bear three children. When he died in 1758, she still attracted noble interest and remarried a Marques, who then inherited a dukedom. Elizabeth was a favourite at court and became a lady for the bedchamber for Queen Charlotte, during George III’s reign. She died at the age of 57, quietly in her bed.

Maria Gunning

Her sister, Maria, was more controversial. She was renowned as being tactless, but for some reason this amused the haut ton and it added to her popularity. Also in 1752, Maria married the Earl of Coventry, but it seems he quickly tried to clip her wings. Whilst on honeymoon in Paris, he reportedly publically wiped her face with a handkerchief, when she wore rouge at dinner after he had forbidden it.
Maria, Countess of Coventry

However, his aversion to Maria wearing cosmetics was strangely prophetic. A woman famed for beauty, she did everything she could to preserve that image. This meant wearing the heavy makeup that was fashionable in some quarters. But unfortunately that makeup contained lead and arsenic which slowly poisoned her. She was caught in a vicious circle, because the symptoms of poisoning included skin breakouts and redness, which undoubtedly meant she applied yet thicker layers of cosmetics.
Maria's mirror.
It was this very mirror Maria looked in to apply her makeup

Her continued use of makeup signed Maria’s death warrant and she died at the tender age of 27. A rags to riches story, which unlike Cinderella has a sad ending.


  1. Are the Gunning sisters in the National Portrait Gallery? I recall a painting with a similar rags to riches story, bug I can't remember the names.

    1. Hello there!
      Yes, I believe you are right. I believe the NPG hold 13 (prophetic?) portraits of the sisters.
      Thank you for visiting!
      Do call again,
      Grace x


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