Walpole writes to Sir Horace Mann in 1751:
" You who knew England in other times will find it difficult to conceive what indifference reigns with regard to Ministers and their squabbles. The two Misses Gunning are twenty times more the subject of conversation than the two brothers and Lord Granville. These are two Irish girls, of no fortune, who are declared the handsomest women alive."
Miss Gunning, afterwards Lady Coventry
" Their being two, so handsome and both such perfect figures, is their chief excellence, for, singly, I have seen much handsomer women than either."
In saying this Walpole, of course, only expresses his own opinion, with which the fashionable world and the people in the street evidently did not agree.
Wherever they went, the Misses Gunning were mobbed and followed; in the Park, at Vauxhall, and at every other social function. Grand dames at Court mounted chairs and tables to catch a glimpse of them, and people at the Opera paid more attention to their box than to the stage. A special guard of soldiers was suggested to keep the crowds back and maintain a passage fo r the "beauties" whenever they took their promenade abroad.
A little before Christmas, 1751, the young and dissipated Duke of Hamilton, whose reckless extravagance and ill mode of living had sadly crippled his property and health, fell violently in love with Elizabeth, the younger of the two.
In due course he proposed to her and was accepted, and in February, 1752, when Mrs. Gunning and Maria were away at Bedford, mindful of the way in which Miss Chudleigh had jilted him, he urged Elizabeth to marry him at once.
The lady was nothing loth, but the parson on being summoned to the house declined to tie the knot in the absence of a ring and a licence. This difficulty, however, was surmounted soon after midnight by means of a bed-curtain ring and the use of the Chapel in Mayfair.
The Duke of Hamilton was a Duke of three countries, England, Scotland, and France, and after the death of the Duke of Somerset, became the haughtiest peer in the realm. Indeed, he thought so much of himself and his position that he and the Duchess always walked in to dinner before their guests, and declined to drink to anybody beneath the rank of an Earl.
Her Second Marriage
Her beauty was still at its zenith, and her admirers were legion. The Duke of Bridgewater she refused, but eventually she accepted Colonel John Campbell, who, in
1770, became fifth Duke of Argyll.
Judges of female beauty have regarded Elizabeth Gunning as the handsomer of the two sisters. Cotes painted the portraits of both, but Reynolds painted Elizabeth only, for when Maria died he had not yet become a fashionable portrait-painter.
The Duchess of Hamilton and Argyll, and Baroness Hamilton in her own right, lived to the age of sixty, and retained much of her great beauty to the very end. She was of a good-natured disposition, and none of the hard things said against her sister have ever been said against her.
Shortly after Elizabeth's marriage to the Duke of Hamilton, Maria, the elder sister, married the Earl of Coventry. The Earl had postponed taking the irrevocable step for a long time, and was the cause of much anxiety to Mrs. Gunning.
Immediately on their arrival in town, the Earl had marked the beauty of Mrs. Gunning's daughters, and accorded his preference to Maria. Wherever she went he was sure to be found in close attendance upon her, and a report was soon circulated that, though his lordship was making love, his intentions were not serious.
' Lord Coventry moved the address in the House of Lords and did it well enough, though agitated at the same time by the two strong passions of love and fear; Miss Gunning being seated on one side of him, and the House on the other. That affair is within a few days of its crisis, but whether that will be a marriage or a settlement is undecided. Most people think the latter; for my part, I think the former."
However, in spite of ill-natured remarks, Lord Coventry continued to pay much attention to Maria Gunning, and she continued to favour his advances. He was a wealthy and solemn young man, and looked upon as one of the greatest catches about town.
At length, however, in 1752, he was persuaded to propose. Maria accepted him, and in March the eldest daughter of Mrs. Gunning became a Countess.
Elizabeth may have been the more beautiful of the two sisters, but Maria, especially after her marriage, met with greater success in society. In Paris, how-ever, she was coldly received. She visited at city in June, 1752, and Walpole, writing ill July about the visit, says:
" Our beauties are returned, and have done no execution. The French would not conceive that Lady Caroline Petersham ever had been handsome, nor that my Lady Coventry has much pretence to be so now. Indeed, all the travelled English allow that there is a Madame Brionne, handsomer and a finer figure."
" Poor Lady Coventry," Walpole, how-ever, continues, "was under piteous dis-advantages . . . suffered to wear neither red nor powder . . . her lord . . . is jealous, prude, and scrupulous. 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 direct to England."
" Yesterday, after chapel, the Duchess (Portland) brought home Lady Coventry to feast me, and a feast she was ! She is a fine figure and vastly handsome, notwithstanding a silly look sometimes about 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 on 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 its wings not quite extended, frilled sort of lappets crossed under her chin, and tied with pink and green ribbon - a head-dress 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."
For a long time Lady Coventry continued to be the leader of fashion in London.
Gradually, however, the symptoms of the doom which consumption had pronounced on her became more and more observable, and in 1760, in accordance with the prophecy of the Dublin seer, she died.
Maria was quite a different type of woman to her sister. She was mean, and to Miss Bellamy, to whom she owed much, she behaved most cruelly. Once she insulted her in her own theatre, and excused the rudeness by saying Miss Bellamy's acting was so inferior to Mrs. Cibber's impersonation of Juliet that she could not restrain her derision.
On another occasion, when visiting George II., then an old and feeble man, Maria declared to him there was but one sight she cared to see, and that - a coronation.
This delightful historical scries will be continued in Every Woman's Encyclopedia.