Did white lead make-up enhance beauty at a deadly cost?
The 'Other Woman'
Kitty Fisher stares confidently at the viewer. This painting is cheeky, with its glorious pun of a kitten fishing out of a bowl. She is wearing expensive clothes and jewelry. She is proud of her success. She has made it. This Kitty is not at all ashamed of fishing for gold.
Kitty was a notorious courtesan of the mid-18th century, a daring woman with a lot of nerve. Casanova said that she once outrageously and publicly ate a banknote ‘of a hundred livres’ on a piece of bread and butter.
...With A Flashy Lifestyle
Giustiniana Wynne, a one-time friend of Casanova and fellow Venetian, who led her own colourful life, wrote letters from London to her lover back in Venice full of the latest gossip. Kitty was famous enough to warrant a description:
‘She lives in the greatest possible splendour, spends twelve thousand pounds a year, and she is the first of her social class to employ liveried servants – she even has liveried chaise porters. There are prints of her everywhere. She is small and I don’t find her beautiful, but the English do, and that is what matters.’
A Confrontation in the Park
George, the 6th Earl of Coventry, was not the catch that Maria Gunning or her mother had hoped for. Among other things, he was not a devoted husband. He sought Kitty’s favours. Giustiniana Wynne recorded a spicy confrontation between Miss Fisher and Lady Coventry:
‘The other day they ran into each other in the park, and Lady Coventry asked Kitty the name of the dressmaker who had made her dress. [Kitty Fisher] answered she had better ask Lord Coventry as he had given her that dress as a gift. Lady Coventry called her an impertinent woman; the other one answered that her marrying a nutty lord had put enough social difference between them that she would have to withstand the insult. But she was going to marry one herself just to be able to answer back to her.’
Kitty clearly had claws.
Poisoned by Her Make-up Too?
Some histories of Kitty Fisher’s life say she too died of lead poisoning from her cosmetics. Surely George Coventry could not have lost both a wife and a mistress to white lead cosmetics?
As Oscar Wilde said: ‘To lose one may be regarded as a misfortune, to lose both looks like carelessness.’
Maybe the stories of the two women got mixed up? Or is it maybe that neither is true?