Reflecting on beauty: Maria Gunning's sad story

Each day Irish beauty Maria Gunning would spend hours in front of this 7ft mirror painting her face, ready to be seen before her doting public. Robert Hume investigates her sad story

Reflecting on beauty: Maria Gunning's sad story

Each day Irish beauty Maria Gunning would spend hours in front of this 7ft mirror painting her face, ready to be seen before her doting public. Robert Hume investigates her sad story

Maria’s grand giltwood mirror at Croome Court, Worcestershire. It was sold at auction in 2012 for £300,000.
Maria’s grand giltwood mirror at Croome Court, Worcestershire. It was sold at auction in 2012 for £300,000.

Born in Hemingford Grey, Huntingdonshire, in 1732, Maria was brought up in poverty in Castle Coote, Co Roscommon.

She was still a girl when her mother put her and her younger sister Elizabeth on stage at the Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin, in order to earn their living. There they became friends with well-known actors such as Peg Woffingham.

Acting was not considered a respectable profession in 18th century Ireland because so many actresses were prostitutes. But it would certainly put a young woman in the spotlight, and might open the doors to wealthy patrons.

In 1748 Maria’s glamorous looks drew both sisters an invitation to a ball in Dublin Castle. Like Cinderella, they did not have gowns for such a grand occasion, but theatre manager Thomas Sheridan (father of playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan) let the girls borrow them from the theatre.

The sisters, who dressed as Juliet and Lady Macbeth, so impressed Earl Harrington, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, that he granted their mother a pension. With that, Mrs Gunning packed their bags and moved the family back to England.

Writer and politician Horace Walpole described the sisters as: “Two Irish girls of no fortune, who make more noise than any of their predecessors since the days of Helen, and who are declared the handsomest women alive.” They attended local balls and masques in Cambridgeshire, and Maria became a celebrity.

Word reached London, where she so captivated the Court of St James that some of the highest-born men in the land climbed up on chairs to get a better view of her.

One of these aristocrats, George William, the Earl of Coventry, offered Maria marriage, and whisked her away to Paris — fashion capital of the world — for their honeymoon.

George William, the Earl of Coventry
George William, the Earl of Coventry

Sophisticated ladies of Louis XV’s court, above all the king’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour, prized pale white skin and rouged cheeks. Whiteness was the status symbol of the age, distinguishing a lady of breeding, who could afford to spend her days indoors, from a woman with tanned skin who had to work in the fields for a living.

When Maria followed suit and applied the white powder and rouge, her husband was furious, and at a banquet one evening took out his handkerchief, and chased her around the table so as to rub it all off.

Back in England, Maria grew ever more popular and became the toast of Vauxhall. She delighted audiences at the New Spring Gardens and at West End shows, and admirers flocked to the stage door after performances. Her shoemaker charged people sixpence to see her shoes.

Londoners lined the streets as she passed in her carriage. She was such a star that crowds stood in Hyde Park for hours, waiting for a glimpse of her, and mobbed her as she passed. Maria Gunning was the Marilyn Monroe of her age.

At one point King George II gave her an armed guard. He also forgave her tactless remarks. When the ageing king asked her what she would most like to see in London, she answered that she was tired of most London sights but would like to see a royal coronation. Luckily, the King found it extremely amusing.

The king’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour
The king’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour

The young woman continued to apply her make-up day after day after day at Croome Court in Worcestershire, the Earl’s ancestral home.

For a whitener, she used ceruse, a combination of lead oxide, hydroxide and carbonate; for rouge, cinnabar, a scarlet form of mercury sulfide; and for lipstick, fucus, or seaweed extract, which also contained mercury.

The poisonous nature of these compounds was not understood at this time; fortunately, most women only used cosmetics on special occasions.

But for Maria, it was the daily application of cosmetics that proved lethal. The lead mixed with the moisture in her skin to form acids that ate away at her face.

Maria’s skin began to peel off, leaving hideous scars. The more the scars showed, the more white lead paste she felt it necessary to put on.

Little by little, the mercury seeped into her veins, and she started to feel very ill. So upset was she by her faded beauty that she spent her final year in a darkened room.

Maria Gunning died on September 30, 1760, at the age of 28, leaving four small children. Ten thousand fans are reported to have turned out to watch the funeral procession.

No autopsy was performed. At the time many people believed that this young woman had died of consumption (tuberculosis) A more scrupulous investigation might have proved that she died of metal poisoning — that she was the victim of her cosmetics.

Beauties of today can only pity Maria Gunning’s fate. They have at their disposal an astonishingly wide range of cleansing, purifying, detoxing, brightening, firming, lifting and filling products.

Instead of lead and mercury, they can happily put their trust in sorbitan sesquioleate, methylparaben, cyclopentasiloxane, dimethicone crosspolymer, ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate, and trimethylsiloxysiicate — just a few of the magical ingredients of the latest cosmetic wonders.

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