Monday, 25 March 2019

The Earl of Coventry's Celebrated Courtesan

Kitty Fisher

Catherine Maria 'Kitty Fisher', Nathaniel Hone

In 1758, a young ‘lady’ of nineteen was fast becoming the biggest celebrity across the land. One Tom Bowlby wrote to a friend in Derbyshire, ‘You must come to town to see Kitty Fisher, the most pretty, extravagant, wicked little whore that ever flourished....’ Believed to be the daughter of a German silver-chaser, Catherine Maria Fischer, as she was born, was a renowned courtesan. She is said to have turned down Casanova, at a price of ten guineas for an hour of her company, although he would have it he declined the offer because she spoke only English and he preferred all his senses gratified, including his hearing. The procuress, Mrs. Wells, then told him that earlier in the day Kitty had ‘eaten a bank-note for 1000 guineas on a piece of bread and butter’. According to Casanova, it was a gift from Sir Richard Akins, ‘brother of the fair Mrs. Pitt’. Variously, however, this note was £20, £50 and £100 and the donor the Duke of York. There is another story of the Duke having been invited to tea at Kitty’s house, and after a convivial meeting, he left a £50 note as he departed, no doubt feeling this was largesse enough. Kitty, it seems, had expected more of the royal sibling and ordered her servants not to admit his Grace again. Much like the celebrities of today, Kitty was the subject of gossip-mongering and tittle-tattle; racehorses were named after her, Sir Joshua Reynolds painted her, and she was immortalized in the nursery rhyme ‘Lucy Lockett dropped her pocket, Kitty Fisher found it.’ You must therefore pay your penny and take your choice as to how much truth lies in any of the many tales.

‘From a physical point of view she was a beautiful girl. Though slight, her figure was moulded in graceful curves, and her limbs possessed the roundness and elasticity of perfect health. Her ripe, provoking lips and saucy tilted nose gave her face an expression of roguery, but when she chose the look would soften, and a glance of childish innocence stole into her grey-blue eyes. Dainty to the finger tips, she was always attired with consummate taste, and no woman was more clever in choosing a gown to suit her style of beauty.’

One March day in 1759, she took her morning gallop beside the Serpentine in Hyde Park, dressed in a ‘stylish black habit’ and riding a frisky piebald. Having passed through into the Green Park and enjoyed a steady canter, Kitty’s party were approaching ‘the palings of St. James’s Park’. A rank of soldiers startled the horse, which bolted down the road. Checked by the interception of some gentlemen, the piebald stopped suddenly and reared. With a cry of alarm, Kitty fell to the ground, whereupon a crowd of concerned onlookers surrounded her, helping her up and enquiring if she were injured. The sobs ceased, became merry laughter as ‘officious hands’ dusted off her habit. After a few minutes, a painted and gilded chair was brought from an appointed position nearby. Kitty, laughing a goodbye to her companions, threw herself into it and was borne away down the Mall. Whispers of “It is Kitty Fisher, the famous Kitty Fisher!” began to circulate through the gathering crowd. Then, it seems, a bluff individual declared forthrightly his indignation.

“D my Bd," he cried, aloud, “if this is not too much. Who would be honest when they may live in this state by turning ? Why, ’tis enough to debauch half the women in London.”

The episode has all the hallmarks of a publicity stunt, does it not? Indeed, very soon the tale of the accident was being talked about, broadcast in the popular press and celebrated in song, so it achieved the desired result. The following appeared in the March issue of the Universal Magazine.

“On K F—’s Falling from her Horse.”
Dear Kitty, had thy only fall
Been that thou met’st with in the Mall,
Thou had’st deserved our pity ;
But long before that luckless day,
With equal justice might we say,
Alas! poor fallen Kitty!
Then, whilst you may, dear girl, be wise,
And though time now in pleasure flies
Consider of hereafter;
For know, the wretch that courts thee now,
When age has furrowed o’er thy brow.
Shall change his sighs to laughter.
Reform thy manners, change thy ways:
For Virtue’s sake, to merit praise
Be all thy honest strife:
So shall the world with pleasure say,
“She tasted folly for a day,
And then grew wise for life.”

Kitty was purportedly unamused, if not incensed, by the attention her fall had received. Mayhap her youthful beaux had pulled her leg over it; certainly, a handbook was published, entitled The Juvenile Adventures of Miss Kitty Fr, with a second volume promised. This was too much and Kitty wrote a scathing piece to the newspapers, published in the Public Advertiser’s pages two days later. Needless to say, there was a backlash (which only goes to show why one should never answer bad reviews) which served Kitty no good a turn, since the author answered in pithy terms and the second book was still published, the ‘Adventures’ being a scurrilous and rude tale containing little truth. Nevertheless, the sordid occurrence did gain Kitty the sympathy of the public.

Sadly, in the Georgian era, gentlemen were rarely faithful to their wives. Kitty Fisher counted many aristocratic gentlemen among her conquests, not least the 6th Earl of Coventry. Although he married the beautiful Maria Gunning, elder of the two Irish sisters who took London by storm despite their lowly birth, there were many misunderstandings within the marriage and the Earl made Kitty his mistress. In a letter to Andrea Memmo, Giastiniana Wynne – later the Countess of Rosenberg – who was staying in London at the time, wrote:

“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 the dress as a gift.”

The rivalry was infamous and the exchange drew some notice. The Countess informed the courtesan she was an ‘impertinent woman’. To this Kitty replied – no doubt in a haughty tone – that she “would have to accept this insult because Maria was socially superior since marrying Lord Coventry, but she was going to marry a Lord herself just to be able to answer back.”

Miss Wynne also wrote of Kitty Fisher:

“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.”

Catherine ‘Kitty’ Fisher was born, then, in about the year 1738. Her working life began in a milliner’s shop, during which time she was seduced by an army ensign, Anthony George Martin, known by the sobriquet, ‘The Military Cupid’. He was the son of an English merchant by a Portuguese mistress and blessed with a fresh-faced handsomeness. Kitty moved into his lodgings and was much in love, but Martin was sent to the Continent and Kitty was left alone and bereft. Now a Fallen Woman, she was solicited by another patron and this time material gain governed her decision. Once on the path of infamy, she rose, as we have seen, to be the lover, not only of Lord Coventry, but of Admiral Augustus Keppel and General Lord Ligonier. She drove about London in a coach drawn by four of the finest grey horses money could buy, the toast of the ordinary folk and celebrated, not just for her beauty but for her wit as well.

Augustus Keppel

“Even had she been wholly plain her cavaliers would have been numerous, for her wit and high spirits made her a fascinating companion. One who should have known speaks of her as ‘…the essence of small talk and the magazine of contemporary anecdote ... it was impossible to be dull in her company.’ Since she was endowed by nature with a distinct personality, her bon mots and repartees had an uncommon zest, and were quoted in the club rooms as frequently as the sallies of Foote, the player.”

Although her origins were lowly, Kitty had “...assumed the ease and politeness of a high-bred gentlewoman and although she could be as wild a madcap as any in the company of devil-may-care admirers, her sprightliness was never tinged with vulgarity.” Despite her immoral occupation, she was clearly both clever and captivating. She had another weapon in her armoury, however, which helped to set her above others of her ilk, both before and since her tenure. Kitty was a skilful horsewoman, taught by Richard Berenger, author of A New System of Horsemanship.

It was a common event for her to be spotted ‘at high noon’, galloping along ‘the Mall’ of St. James’s on a spirited charger. She was, in effect, a woman who liked to be out of doors – no ‘stately promenade once a day’ in order ‘to take the air’ for her. She was given to frequenting the tea gardens and parks throughout the hours of daylight.

That austere publication, the Public Advertiser, was not above printing the following effusive lines from the pen of Mr. Thomas Wilkes, in the sure knowledge of garnering a slew of readers for so fashionable and attractive a subject.

Fair Venus, who oft among Mortals goes ambling,
Was lost t’other day; and she somewhere went rambling;
It put all the Gods to their trumps, to find out.
Her Dress, her Disguise, her Engagement or Route.
Apollo and Cupid, who seldom unite
(Love and Reason being different as Darkness and Light);
Soon jointly agreed to go search for the dame,
At high Noon, to the Mall of St. James’s they came.
I have found her, says Cupid, see yonder, look there;
’Tis my Mother, I know her Deportment and Air;
Look again, said Apollo, you blundering calf.
Your Mother was never so handsome by half,
Look a little more sharply, repining you’ll own.
Such beauty can be Kitty Fisher’s alone.

Kitty Fisher and a Parrot, Sir Joshua Reynolds

Sir Joshua Reynolds painted her twice, as Cleopatra Dissolving a Pearl and with a parrot; and Nathaniel Horne also took her portrait, picturing her with a kitten, its paw in a goldfish bowl. This portrait hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. Her name became identifiable with a particular kind of bead used in lace-making, a white bead with blue and red spots decorating it, and, of course, she is immortalized in the nursery rhyme. It is very likely she is the Kitty Fisher referred to, for she was a heroine of the ordinary folk and could well have been added to a popular rhyme – many were written about her, some extremely rude. Lucy Lockett (or Lockit) was a character in The Beggar’s Opera of 1728, by John Gay.

Lucy Locket lost her pocket,
Kitty Fisher found it;
Not a penny was there in it,
Only ribbon round it.

Kitty led a life of fame and fortune in the public eye for ten years. Then she married John Norris Jnr., the son of a landowner in Kent. At last her infatuation for Anthony Martin died and she fell genuinely in love. At Hemsted Park, high above the village of Beneden, she rode her spirited coal-black mare (a wedding gift from her husband) with a renewed passion that stunned the villagers to awe at her grace, dash and courage as she leapt any obstacle in her path. She became beloved for her kindness, liveliness, charity and willingness to listen. For the first time, Kitty was truly happy.

She must have known it could not last, such had been the law of her life. She developed a hollow cough which became harsher, deeper and very painful. Her cheeks began to burn and her strength began to fail. Although her friends whispered she had fallen a victim of lead poisoning, as had her adversary, Lady Coventry, it has been suggested it was not so. The ‘evil-liver’ was said to be the cause and Kitty died in Bath whilst travelling with her husband to the ‘Hotwells’ at Bristol. She was the tragically young age of 29 and had been married less than five months. She was buried at Beneden, in those last months of her life a reformed character.

All pictures public domain.

© Heather King

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