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Lady Coventry's Clothes and Makeup

In modern times, Lady Coventry is usually described as a silly woman who refused to give up her white lead makeup and so died tragically young.


In the 1750s, she was a famous beauty, whose looks were the standard by which other women were judged. She was an aristocrat who was welcomed at court and who knew the King and his sons. She fully dressed the part. Her clothes cost a fortune. Court gossips and newspapers alike kept an eye on what she wore. 

Her makeup is mentioned in some 18th century letters. Her husband (who comes across as a mean bully) famously scrubbed it off her face in public. A courtier once snippily commented that she wore too much makeup which she didn't need. I have so far only found a single 18th century source for the story that she died from her makeup.

A selection of gossip and stories can be found below. Use the buttons to see larger versions of the paintings above the stories.

Portrait: Lady Coventry by John Etienne Liotard circa 1752. Owned by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA. This photograph is copyright free.

 
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Gossip & Stories

 
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Too Much Makeup

Modern men feel remarkably free to criticize women for the amount of makeup we wear. This is apparently not a new phenomenon. Lord Chesterfeld thinks Lady Coventry wears too much makeup which he calls 'white'. In a letter to a friend, he says:


'The Countess of Coventry appeared [at court]… for the first time… and was afterwards presented to the King , and, in the news paper style, met with a most gracious reception. My Lord has adorned and rigged her out completely. She adorns herself too much , for I was near her enough to see manifestly that she had laid on a great deal of white which she did not want, and which will soon destroy both her natural complexion and her teeth.'

Image of Maria, Lady Coventry, by Richard Houston after Francis Cotes, ca. 1750-1760. Used with the permission of the National Portrait Gallery, London, UK (under academic license.) Image cropped for website layout.

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Spangles like Shillings

Lady Coventry was a dear friend of George Selwyn who was known for his wit and bons mots. George may have been fond of her, but according to the man of letters, Horace Walpole, he wasn't above teasing her. Walpole wrote:

'The town is empty, but is coming to dress itself for Saturday. My Lady Coventry showed George Selwyn her clothes; they are blue, with spots of silver, of the size of a shilling, and a silver trimming, and cost--my lord will know what. She asked George how he liked them; he replied, "Why, you will be change for a guinea".'

Print (1800 - 1843) by William Greatbach after Sir Joshua Reynolds. Image © The Trustees of the British Museum. George Selwyn is on the left. 

 
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'She Would have Charmed a Shepherd'

There is a lovely description of Lady Coventry's clothes in letter from Mrs Delaney (Mary Granville) to a friend in 1752. Mrs Delaney sounds quite wistful, and obviously thought Lady Coventry looked adorable in an outfit she had worn to church. She wrote:

'Yesterday after chapel, the Duchess brought home Lady Coventry to feast me, and what a feast she was! She is a fine figure and vastly handsome, not withstanding a silly look sometimes around her mouth; she has a thousand airs, but with a sort of innocence that diverts one! Her dress was a black silk sack, made for a large hoop, which she wore without any, and it trailed a yard along the ground; she had on a cobweb laced handkerchief, a pink satin long cloke, lined with ermine mixed with squirrel skins; on her head a French cap that just covered the top of her head, of blond, and stood in the form of a  butterfly with wings not quite extended, frilled sort of lappets crossed under her chin, and tied with pink and green ribbon – a headdress that would have charmed a shepherd! She has a thousand dimples and prettiness in her cheeks, her eyes a little drooping at the corners, but fine for all that…’

Image is Maria, Countess of Coventry by Benjamin Wilson c. 1750  Used with permission of the Fitzwilliam Museum. Image cropped for website layout.

 
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The Russian Masquerade

I find that Horace Walpole can sometimes be a bit mean about Lady Coventry. He obviously thought her silly and gauche. He did not always see what the fuss was about her beauty. However, I cannot help but enjoy his vivid and catty descriptions of social events among the beau monde. In one letter he writes:

'...the description I promised you of the Russian masquerade… In a few words, there were all the beauties, and all the diamonds, and not a few of the uglies of London. The Duke [of Cumberland] like Osman the Third, seemed in the centre of his new seraglio, and I believe my lady and I thought that my Lord Anson was the chief eunuch. My Lady Coventry was dressed in a great style, and looked better than ever. Lady Betty Spencer, like Rubens's wife (not the common one with the hat), had all the bloom and bashfulness and wildness of youth, with all the countenance of all the former Marlboroughs. Lord Delawar was an excellent mask, from a picture at Kensington of Queen Elizabeth's porter. Lady Caroline Petersham, powdered with diamonds and crescents for a Turkish slave, was still extremely handsome.' 

This glorious miniature portrait, on ivory, surrounded by rubies, of Maria, Lady Coventry, is held in the Wallace Collection, London UK. The photograph is from, and can be seen in full, on the Wallace Collection website.

 
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Rouge Scrubbed from her Face

Having read a number of Horace Walpole's and George Selwyn's letters, I have come to the conclusion that George, 6th Earl of Coventry, was a real pill. The anecdote that solidified this impression for me was told (as many are) by Horace Walpole. This story seems to have started the link between Lady Coventry and cosmetics in the public imagination.

'He [George 6th Earl of Coventry] is jealous, prude, and scrupulous; at a dinner at Sir John Bland's, before sixteen persons, he coursed his wife round the table, on suspecting she had stolen on a little red, seized her, scrubbed it off by force with a napkin, and then told her, that since she had deceived him and broke her promise, he would carry her back directly to England.'

Image is Maria, Countess of Coventry by Benjamin Wilson c. 1750  Used with permission of the Fitzwilliam Museum. Image cropped for website layout.

 
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Dead from White Lead Makeup

I have found a number of 19th century histories that say that Lady Coventry died of her makeup. However, I started being skeptical when so many of them seemed to link back to one source; as so often, our inveterate letter writer Horace Walpole. In one letter he says:

'That pretty young woman, Lady Fortrose, Lady Harrington's eldest daughter, is at the point of death, killed, like Coventry and others, by white lead, of which nothing could break her.' 

Image of Maria, Lady Coventry, by Richard Houston after Francis Cotes, ca. 1750-1760. Used with the permission of the National Portrait Gallery, London, UK (under academic license.)