Lady with a Parrot

Silver medal, 19th century, based on a work of circa 1667 © NPG
Frances Stewart, chosen for her impeccable Roman profile, was depicted on two commemorative medals celebrating rare English victories during the Anglo-Dutch naval wars.

Pepys, who checked out all King Charles II‘s mistresses in detail, like a creepy judge at a beauty contest, thought the young Frances Stewart was the best-looking of the lot. She was a celebrity in France, too, where the bitchy Comte de Gramont said “it would be difficult to image less brain combined with more beauty”.

Like Maria Gunning a century later, she must have got used to being called beautiful and stupid. Maybe Frances was shrewd enough to play dumb, like Lorelei Lee, who knew how “to be smart when it’s important”, because she managed her life and her money more sensibly than most of her wittier, cleverer contemporaries.

Court observers suspected her of coquetry while playing the long game of becoming queen if the king’s wife died. As with most royal mistresses, there was a political faction pushing and grooming her, just as there are agents and casting directors and publicists promoting a starlet.

Frances, the socially ambitious daughter of a very minor courtier, distantly related to the royal Stuarts, had been talent-scouted at the French court, where she had been trained in flirtation, a more useful education than most pretty, vapid upper-class English girls of the Restoration were likely to get.

Unlike their Tudor ancestresses, Restoration girls were brought up in ignorance. The great feminist writer of the late 17th century, Mary Astell, denounced the education given girls as useful only “to make a fine show and be good for nothing.” She asked the rest of her sex, “How can you be content to be in the World like Tulips in a Garden?”

Frances excelled at all the things that made a fine show – dancing, playing, fashion and flirting – and her apparently empty head kept her safe from controversy. Clever men and women look down on apparently stupid girls like Frances unwisely.

If you were very good at flirting, you could use it for protection as well as promotion. It actually was good for something, like being good at politics.

And Frances, once she realized she was never going to be a queen, was playing a much longer game than the spiteful gossips guessed.

She married her duke, also a Stuart, when she was nineteen, was widowed at twenty-five and never married again. For the rest of her life as a Tulip she enjoyed high social status, wealth and prestige and, by not re-marrying, a rare degree of independence. She was adept at financial and estate management. She did not have children. She was a virgin again.

Maybe she didn’t enjoy sex. Maybe she disliked, or feared, physical intimacy. Maybe she wanted autonomy. After the frenetic sexual hide and seek, the flattering attentions and unwanted harassment of her teens, she won her freedom from patriarchal control.

She and the king were reconciled after her marriage and remained friends till his death, which was the happiest ending for the debonair predator and the chaste huntress.

Frances Teresa Stuart, Duchess of Richmond and Lennox
by Willem Wissing and Jan van der Vaart
oil on canvas, 1687. © NPG
Frances, painted two years after Charles II’s death, aged 40, dressed in her Duchess’s state robes, resting her elbow next to her coronet. She was long since free of the Duke, her husband, and enjoying all the advantages of her position.
Late 17th century court portraiture elongated the female figure, but Frances was tall in person, too. She was 5’8″. Queen Mary II (1662 – 94) was 5’11”, the same height as her great-great grandmother, Mary, Queen of Scots. It’s a myth that everyone in history was shorter than us. In the 1690s there was a movement, encouraged by Mary, against libertinism which attempted to eradicate the worst obscenities in social behaviour. The new seriousness was reflected in the subdued colouring and
sedate poses of their portraits.

The gift of beauty that Frances was granted is misunderstood by envious people. Psyche’s trials and tribulations were mostly caused by jealous women, including her own mother-in-law, Venus.

Beauty gives more joy to the beholder than to the owner who has the lifelong task of looking after it. Before inoculation was introduced in the 1720s being a beautiful female mortal was doubly hazardous because even if you were lucky enough to survive childbirth, you could so easily lose your looks or your life to smallpox.

La Belle Stuart was scarred by the disease in 1668, when she was only twenty, but she survived to be fifty-five, still small-waisted and elegantly proportioned, her face still distinguished by her sweet smile and her perfect little Roman nose, commemorated by her life-size wax funeral effigy, dressed in a duchess’s coronation robes, that stands in the vault of Westminster Abbey.

Image copyright Westminster Abbey

The memorial was her own idea. The other effigies of kings and queens around her look stiff and stolid, their faces tired and blank, as if they can’t bear the thought of another performance. Waxy, painted, corseted elderly Frances, false hair curled and piled high in a fontange, looks vibrant, walking towards her audience with the sprightly step of Diana the Huntress, with wide open eyes and that charming smile.

This is the fame she always wanted, with a title and the royal Stuart name, and no-one to touch her.

She is accompanied by a stuffed grey African parrot, who had been her constant companion in life for forty years. Together they make the most touching tableau among all the eerie monuments of the Stuart Age.

Image copyright Westminster Abbey

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Virgin Huntress

The case that Charles II, the most priapic and charming of English kings, only practised consensual sex with women is supported by his treatment of the teenage Frances Stewart, later Duchess of Richmond, a tall, slim, blue-eyed dark blonde, who turned him down repeatedly, except for kissing in corners, in full view of non-paying voyeurs like Samuel Pepys.

Frances Stuart, later Duchess of Richmond, by Sir Peter Lely, before 1662. Royal Collection. Image: Wikipedia
La Belle Stuart is portrayed in the character of the virginal huntress, Diana.
She looks like a golden sugared plum, a dainty dish to set before the king,
which is how she was treated in reality.

The royal chase lasted four years. Charles II wanted this splendid specimen in his harem. She preferred to elope with a duke than be the king’s whore. Rather than sulk or threaten to destroy her career, as a lesser man or misogynist might have done, the king, once he got over his resentment and was back in his usual good humour, made her famous for ever by using her as the model for Britannia on the national coinage, with her consent.

That is the story, anyway – Pepys’ story, of course. The influence that one man’s gossip has had over English history is unfathomably pernicious. Why trust a diary, anyway? It is not a reliable testament, any more than the average blog; a diary is for re-writing history before anyone else can, score-settling, wish-fulfillment, slavering over sex fantasies with the royal mistresses, confessions of groping women in church, a whitewashing of days to make the diarist sleep better at night.

Whether the Britannia anecdote is true or not, Pepys helped make Frances famous for centuries after her death, and the figure on the coin sexier.


The 1672 copper farthing, showing Britannia, supposedly based on a likeness of Frances Stewart, Duchess of Richmond (1674 – 1702), seated on a rock, holding a spear and an olive branch in either hand. The figure and pose were inspired by Roman coins. Frances was celebrated for her Roman profile, and tall, graceful figure,
so it is plausible that she was the model.

And how do we know who slept with whom? Who cares? What moral lesson do we learn? What archetype are we recognizing or longing for?

Whether or not Frances ever had sex with the King, it suited both of them to perpetuate the charming myth of her virginal resistance. Charles, according to the letters he wrote to his sister Minette, had genuinely deep feelings – “tenderness” – for Frances and was hurt by her behaviour – “as bad as breach of friendship and faith can make it”. Whether their relationship was sexually consummated or not, she was supposed to be his trophy, part of his collection.

After her husband the Duke of Richmond died, in 1672, the King granted the widow an annuity of £1000. He was generous to all his mistresses, even the one that said no. He stayed friends with them. It seems that the “easiest King and best-bred man alive” during cared about women as people, not objects.

Rochester in his Satyr on King Charles II also described the “merry monarch” as so “Restless he rolls about from whore to whore”. We – I mean me – are still charmed by King Charles, contemptuous of Mr Pepys.

They were both predators, in an era of unmitigated sexual harassment, and if either of them touched me, in controlled holographic conditions, I’d tell them to stop – but I’d flirt with one and slap a Court order on the other #metoo. Frances Stewart must have felt the same.

Pretty and Powerful in Pink

Philippe de Champaigne, 1602 - 1674 Cardinal de Richelieu 1633-40 Oil on canvas, 259.5 x 178.5 cm Presented by Charles Butler, 1895 NG1449 http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG1449

ABSOLUTE POWER: Cardinal de Richelieu, oil on canvas, 1633-40 by Philippe de Champaigne.
Image: © Copyright The National Gallery, London 2015
“I have the consolation of leaving your kingdom in the highest degree of glory and of reputation”, the dying Richelieu wrote to Louis XVIII, father of Louis XIV. The foundations of French gloire in the reign of the Sun King were laid by Richelieu. He wears Cardinal’s Robes of pink, the liturgical colour of rejoicing in God.

gainsboroughcountesshoweREAL ESTATE, SEX AND FASHION POWER in one woman: Mary, Countess Howe by Gainsborough, oil on canvas, 1764.
Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood House, London. Image: WGA
This exquisite incarnation of 18th century elegance and aristocracy was the wife of a gouty admiral. She had been born into a wealthy, landowning family and was co-heiress with her sister of their father’s substantial property; her marriage brought her into the aristocracy when her husband inherited the title of Viscount.
She is pretty and formidable, sensually alluring and untouchable. The love with which Gainsborough imbues her portrait and the poetically moody sky is thought by art historians to not be an entire illusion, as he was known to become sexually attracted to his good-looking female sitters, a professional hazard for many portraitists of all epochs.

In the same year Gainsborough painted Mary Howe, on the other side of the Channel, the woman who had redefined, owned and commercialized pink, the king’s mistress and unofficial cultural minister of France, Madame de Pompadour, died.

pompadourboucher

Madame de Pompadour by Boucher, 1759. Wallace Collection, London. Image: WGA
SELF-MADE POWER: elegant, gentle, carnal yet intangible, suggestible but not forceful – this is the quintessentially feminine power of influence crafted by the woman herself.

Such a soft, shell-like pink reminiscent of idealized human flesh tones, is flattering next to a middle-aged woman’s skin, but it is also suggestive of the colour of the sky when the sun rises and sets, and, in the iconography of her relationship with Louis XV, the sun god was the symbol of her lover and master, the king. Her favourite portraitist Boucher, was the genius and pander of pink.

MarilynpinkCELEBRATION OF PINK POWER: Marilyn Monroe singing “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” in the pink satin dress designed by Travilla, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, 1953. Image: Wikipedia
Blatant materialism and feminine predatory sexuality find absolution in pure, sweet, shocking pink celebration of being alive.
Marilyn is the girl whose faults we all forgive.

Pink is the colour of joy.

Angel in a pink dress under a pink glass ceiling (2)

“I have as much soul as you — and full as much heart! …I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh: it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal — as we are!”

If the first dear readers of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre had known the writer was a woman they would have smirked over Jane’s cry for freedom. Oh, poor, plain, chatty Jane! How embarrassing for her. An hysterical woman screaming for attention. Love me love me Mr Rochester even though I’m poor and not pretty.

Under the impression that a man was communicating to them through an imaginary female body, the reader thinks – oh, if HE says so, perhaps there’s a point to all this spiritual and sexual equality thing after all.

And collusion with prejudice, having to play along with patriarchy, was the reason Charlotte wasn’t happy pretending to be a masculine writer. But, traditionally, this was how women had achieved enormous power over sexes and nations.

mariatheresa ghent

Martin van Meytens, Empress Maria Theresa, Town Hall Ghent. Image: WGA
A Serious Woman in a Pink Dress
Like the dress choices of Elizabeth I, and, intriguingly, the present Duchess of Cambridge, everything the great Habsburg empress and European matriarch wore in public was laden with political and diplomatic significance.
The pink dress she wears is covered in Flemish lace, a gift from the states of Flanders. She presented this formal portrait to them as a reciprocal gift, and it still hangs in Stadhuis Ghent.
She was an able, pragmatic and hardworking statesman, who passed many reforms though deeply conservative in her convictions and a devout Roman Catholic instinctively intolerant of religious diversity.
Though she held the real power, she only bore the title Empress by virtue of being married to the elected Holy Roman Emperor, because no woman could be a candidate, and after his death, as co-ruler with her son Joseph II. In her domestic life, too, she observed the glass ceiling: she was an obedient wife who had sixteen children by her faithless husband.
Like many strong-minded women who achieve power on their own merits she was not interested in the cause of female emancipation in general.
It is easy to understand why Elizabeth I never married.

Prejudice is resilient. It is ancient as the time when Eve replaced Lilith – and which of them wore pink, then? Every time the ceiling cracks, it is quickly repaired, by as many women as men, afraid of their shade of pink, the eternal feminine, being subverted by female literary terrorists.

Once upon a time, the most powerful of angelic messengers wore pink when they brought good news.

pink

Fra Angelico Annunciation 1433-34 Tempera on wood, Museo Diocesano, Cortona. Image: WGA
The announcing angel Gabriel is wearing a pink dress and an expensive gold leaf androgynous haircut.
Rose-pink is the liturgical colour of rejoicing.

Pink should not need an apology. There are many shades of pink. I’m not going to give it up; it is a misunderstood colour reclaimed by women writers every day. The best things in life are ambivalent.

Irony is pink.

Yes, dear reader, you can be a woman, wear lipstick, high heels and a pink dress, and be a feminist. You might even grow up to be a writer one day.

Pink. It’s a mistake not to take it seriously.

Fairy tale ending

NPG D34186; Maria (Gunning), Countess of Coventry by John Finlayson, after  Katharine ReadNPG D7116; Elizabeth (Gunning), Duchess of Argyll by John Finlayson, after  Katharine Read

The Gunning sisters: Maria, Countess of Coventry (1733-1760) and Elizabeth, Duchess of Argyll (1734-1790),
Mezzotints by John Finlayson (Maria, on the left, or top, depending on your device) published in 1771, Elizabeth, on the right, published in 1770) after paintings by Katherine Read.
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Perhaps it’s projection, or Read, an experienced society portraitist, really did put a hint of slyness in Maria’s expression, and caught Elizabeth’s bland composure and self-determination.

Being defined by being beautiful and nothing else has always come at a price: Maria died aged only 27 of blood-poisoning caused by the excessive use of lead in her make-up. Ten thousand people went to look at her coffin.

We – the observers, then and now – are so afraid of our own mortality, so needy for affirmation of own moral superiority, we like to believe that if she had not been so vain, she could have controlled her fate.

It depends on your definition of vanity, of course. If she had been a plain woman, or an old woman, spending time at the dressing-table before going out to work, or the shops, or being forced to stay in for BT or the gasman, taking the trouble to put on a bit of powder of lipstick, we would call her “well-groomed”, and be cheered up by her sense of social responsibility.

If she was a blogger, anxiously counting her “Likes”, screaming at the screen because she didn’t have enough Followers, would we call her vain?

Everything is vanity, traditionally: every thing that makes life bearable. Beauty, comfortable housing, not just the cushions and the free-standing bath (god, I’d love that, if I had the space and the plumbing wasn’t so crap) but the external structure of your home – why can’t you live in a nicely frescoed cave? – and the fixtures and fittings inside – the fireplaces, the built-in cupboards, the curtains, even your books, your pictures, your hobbies, your phones, your tablets – not to mention your bank accounts, which the government are probably looking at already – so why can’t we give that girl the right to own her face?

raritiesarevanities

Jan van der Heyden Still-Life with Rarities, 1712, Oil on canvas, Szépművészeti Múzeum, Budapest.
Image: WGA
“Rarities are vanities” – the pointlessness of civilization and individuality (but oh! what a nice fireplace for the cool light of a modern home, with an optional armadillo swinging by).

We don’t think, if we hadn’t been so addicted to looking at her, thousands of us looking at her, criticizing her, aggrandizing or belittling her, she wouldn’t have been so obsessed with how she looked in our eyes. She wants our approval, we want her to have our approval, we want to own her, a fiction of our making, and we, like drug dealers, push her, this lovely, stupid, vulnerable girl, into the habit.

Every time you notice she’s got a zit, are you relieved to see she’s as prone to imperfections as you? Then it’s you who are vain.

Oh, look – beauty and tragedy, in one stroke. Eat this lovely red apple, Snow White. We’ll give you a happy ending if we feel like being cheered up, but sometimes tears are even better; they make us feel we are good people.

toilettepapillons

La Toilette engraving by Saint Aubin, 1748, Bibliothčque Nationale, Paris. Image: WGA
As well as pretty shells and gurgling putti, flower garlands and little baa lambs, Rococo imagination played with sinister, grotesque and entomological figures long before pseudo-medieval horror entered mainstream culture, and these giant butterflies, descended from fantastical stage-set monsters of a hundred years earlier, so closely resembling science-fiction aliens of today, might be visible fluttering around our own dressing-tables in the blinking of an eye…

The younger sister, Elizabeth, had more sense and a stronger instinct for self-preservation. She never lost the proverbial “luck of the Gunnings”, and she had a natural dignity of her own. She was a successful serial gold-digger, marrying two dukes and being engaged to a third in between, finally being granted a noble title in her own right by a besotted George III.

Hers was the sort of life, like Lorelei Lee’s, in which “Fate keeps on happening”.

There was something of a life-force about Elizabeth, which was her greatest beauty.

Sir_Joshua_Reynolds_-_Elizabeth_Gunning,_Duchess_of_Hamilton_and_Argyll

Portrait of the Duchess of Hamilton and Argyll by Joshua Reynolds, oil on canvas c 1760-61.
Image: Wikipedia.
Elizabeth, the younger sister by a year, wearing the ermine edged crimson coronation robes of a duchess, as you do, while you lean nonchalently on a plinth in a park.
The robes are only worn on the ceremonial occasion of the sovereign’s coronation, in this case, George III’s.

At the time Reynolds painted her portrait, Elizabeth had been recently widowed and was a dowager duchess at the age of twenty-four; she quickly married another duke in time for the new king’s accession, proving the luck of the Gunnings, that gentlemen marry brunettes, that Fate keeps happening, and that it’s hard to tell the difference between history and fantasy.

Page_138_illustration_from_Fairy_tales_of_Charles_Perrault_(Clarke,_1922)Illustration by Harry Clarke to The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault, published in 1922 by Harrap. Image: Wikipedia

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