But gentlemen marry brunettes

Once upon a time, long, long ago, longer than the first BB creams, or plastic surgery, longer ago than the film of How To Marry a Millionaire, longer even than the age of Flappers and their shingle bobs, when Anita Loos wrote Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and its sequel, But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, longer than when unstoppable American heiresses married into the British and European aristocracy, longer ago than universal suffrage and universal education, at a time when the only universally accepted truth for a woman’s fate was in the marriage market, there lived two beautiful, but very poor, dark-haired sisters known as the Gunning Beauties.

They became A-list celebrities of their day, Cinderellas who escaped from genteel poverty in Ireland – so poor that they had to try earning a living on the stage – to social ascendancy in England through marriage to aristocrats – fine, if you like that sort of thing, and even if you don’t, imagine a world in which a woman’s career options were so narrow that only a wedding in a silver dress could save her from destitution or prostitution.

Like Cinderella, they didn’t have dresses for their first ball in Dublin, until a fairy-godmother, in their case the local theatre manager, supplied them with two costumes from his wardrobe department.

Unlike Cinderella, they had a living mother who had a dream for her daughters, “a wonderful dream”, to get her daughters married to princes. She had the advantage of being born on the right side of the tracks, as the daughter of an Irish peer, and had an insider’s knowledge of how to market the girls for presentation at Court. Her daughters’ beauty would get them the wealth and social position that she had been denied by an unlucky marriage.

She steered them over the water to mainland Britain where they would, in the words Sondheim wrote for another ambitious mother, “stand the world on its ear / Set it spinning..” and “have nothing to hit but the heights”….

Elizabeth Gunning Hamilton

“…the cool type of temperament who thinks two is a crowd” (Anita Loos, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) Portrait of Elizabeth Gunning, by Gavin Hamilton, commissioned by her first ducal husband, the Duke of Hamilton, 1752/53. Image: Wikipedia Continue reading

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Through a woman’s eyes

NPG D5655; Catharine Macaulay (nÈe Sawbridge) by Jonathan Spilsbury, published by John Spilsbury, after Katharine Read

Catharine Macaulay (née Sawbridge) mezzotint by Jonathan Spilsbury, published by John Spilsbury, after a painting by Katharine Read, published September 1764. © National Portrait Gallery, London.
The great political tradition of constitutional liberty that inspired Macaulay is contained in the books surrounding her. She leans on John Milton, the finest republican poet and polemicist in the English language; behind her are the Discourses concerning Government of Algernon Sydney, the first Whig martyr, executed in 1683 for his opposition to Stuart absolutism and all forms of government oppression.

The painter of the original portrait reproduced in this engraving was Katherine Read (1723 – 1778), a Scottish artist specialising in crayon who had a successful practice in London. Her well-connected, wealthy clients were mostly women and children, members of the royal family and aristocracy, prominent intellectuals and writers like Catharine Macaulay, and society beauties.

fitzroy - Copy

Lady Georgiana Fitzroy and George Henry Fitzroy, Earl of Euston, later 4th Duke of Grafton, crayon by Katherine Read, 1770

Read didn’t need to work for a living; she chose to. She was independent and ambitious; she never married. Her early career was dictated by the politics of her time. Her family had strong Jacobite affiliations, for which they suffered, and she left Scotland for France after the defeat of the ’45 Rebellion. She was able to afford to study crayon painting in Paris under Maurice Quentin de la Tour.

Then she moved to Rome, another Jacobite hub on the cultural Grand Tour, studying and making contacts with patrons in Italy, until she settled in Hanoverian London in 1753, earning money from painting the old enemy.

NPG D33327; King George IV; Frederick, Duke of York and Albany by James Watson, after Katharine Read

George, Prince of Wales and his younger brother, Frederick, Duke of York, mezzotint by James Watson, after Katharine Read’s crayon painting, circa 1765-1770. Image: © National Portrait Gallery, London.
Read produced many charming portraits of aristocratic children, made cuter by hugging dogs, big or small. There is nothing charming or cute about these two alarmingly overweight toddlers, the future George IV and one of his brothers, suggesting that Read refused to sacrifice truth for sychophancy. Perhaps she never gave up her Jacobite contempt for the Hanoverian dynasty.

In 1771, seeing another opportunity to conquer a new world, or just taken over by Wanderlust again, she accompanied her niece, Helena Beatson, also an artist, to the developing British empire in India, and died at sea, near Madras, at the beginning of her journey home.

Read’s art was tame compared to the great female portrait painters who flourished in France later in the century, due to superior professional conditions of access to the same high training as men at a progressive academy, and of positive discrimination rather than condescension of patrons, but the sketchy facts about her life give an impression of a strong, adventurous, determined woman, a brilliant trimmer and survivor, who adapted to circumstances and contemporary taste.

She knew what she wanted to be, and she did it.

The graceful leaning poses of her sitters, her refined tact in rendering gentle and genteel likenesses, the subtlety of her pastel colours, were fully appreciated in her lifetime, but after her death, sharing the posthumous fate of many talented women artists, rich and poor, the best of her work was so good it was attributed to men, in her case Joshua Reynolds, and the rest of it almost entirely forgotten.

NPG D3400; Polly Kennedy (alias Jones) published by John Bowles, after Katharine ReadPolly Kennedy (Polly Jones) published by John Bowles, mezzotint after a painting by Katherine Read, 1770s. Image: © National Portrait Gallery, London

Related links: Katharine Read / Dundee Women’s Trail
Nicholas Ennos, owner of Read’s portrait of her niece, Helena Beaston and author of Jane Austen – A New Revelation

“Calm down, dear”

NPG D31911; Catharine Macaulay (nÈe Sawbridge) in the character of a Roman matron lamenting the lost liberties of Rome by Williams, after  Katharine Read

Catharine Macaulay (née Sawbridge) line engraving by Williams, 1770, after a painting by Katharine Read © National Portrait Gallery, London.
A passionate democrat is lamenting the lost liberties of the Republic of Rome.

She was respected and celebrated in Britain, France and America, by politicians as diverse as Pitt the Elder, Mirabeau, Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Adams and George Washington, who wanted her to write the history of the American Revolution. As an historian and political theorist she was regarded as the adversary and equal of her male contemporaries David Hume, Edward Gibbon and Edmund Burke, and was more progressive, more recognizably modern to us, than any of them.

Now, most of us have never heard of her. I bumped into her for the first time a month ago when I was looking for more 18th century women with “a taste for books”, as she put it.

The process of shunting her out of his-story, started in her lifetime. As she got older, her extreme radicalism, particularly her support of the French Revolution, and unconventional private life shocked a lot of people, who cast her out of their polite society. She didn’t seem to miss it. Middle-aged women who refuse to conform, who continue to innovate and prefer dancing on the precipice to knitting grandchildren’s socks are still not taken seriously today: audiences love to see them fall.

She had been born into recently landed gentry whose wealth had come from banking, typical of early 18th century social and economic mobility. Her political theories were rooted in the ‘Roundhead’ tradition of John Hampden, the true hero of parliamentarianism, not the tyrant Oliver Cromwell, who became crypto-king.

She ranged far left of the Whig ideology in which she had been raised, far outside the accepted lines of class, sex and age. Personal liberty and equality, and the courage of personal conviction, mattered more to her than social approval. When she was forty-seven, having been a widow for twelve years, she overturned every kind of received idea by marrying a twenty-one year old ‘surgeon’s mate’, the younger brother of a celebrity quack doctor.

She was still a star of liberty in the new American Republic, and was welcomed, accompanied by her husband, to George Washington’s house for a visit which lasted ten days. She was the President’s first choice to write the history of the Revolution; by then in her late fifties, she felt too physically frail for the task; only a terminal illness would have stopped her.

After her death, her husband, William Graham, erected a monument commemorating her wisdom in All Saints’ Church, Binfield, in Berkshire. Most other English people buried her intellectual achievements along with her body, and her radical contribution to political theory and history was forgotten in the next century.

This was partly because monarchical systems of government and opposition to universal suffrage triumphed in post-Napoleonic Europe, partly because she was a woman, a very inconvenient woman, whose intellectual challenge to a man’s world could be dismissed as menopausal hysteria, her rational voice shouted down in a chorus of “Calm down, dear” (remark made by UK Prime Minister David Cameron to fellow MP Angela Eagle during a parliamentary debate in 2011, in a badly-judged parody of a popular TV advert featuring Michael Winner).

NPG D17066; Catharine Macaulay (nÈe Sawbridge) by James Basire, after  Giovanni Battista Cipriani

Catharine Macaulay (née Sawbridge) by James Basire, after Giovanni Battista Cipriani,
line engraving, published 1767. Image: © National Portrait Gallery, London

Now, when we see that liberty and equality are as fragile as ever, she is understood and relevant again.