The Tragic Story of a Beautiful Countess Who Became a “Victim of Cosmetics”

Born in Cambridgeshire in 1733 to Irish parents, Maria Gunning was the eldest of seven children. Her father, John Gunning, was from Castlecoote, County Roscommon and her mother, Bridget Bourke, was the daughter of Theobald Bourke, 6th Viscount Mayo.

Although her mother descended from Irish nobility, the family lived in relative poverty. By 1740, their situation in Cambridgeshire had worsened, and they decided to begin a new life in John Gunning’s hometown of Roscommon, Ireland.

When it was time for Maria’s and her sister Elizabeth’s coming of age, their mother encouraged them to take up acting to earn a living.

Acting wasn’t considered a respectable profession in 18th-century Ireland, but it could open doors to wealthy benefactors. Besides, the sisters were astonishingly good looking, and if nothing else, acting would most certainly put them in the spotlight of admiring eyes.

Mary Gunning. Credit gomgsite.net
Mary Gunning. Credit gomgsite.net

Befriending well-known actors like Peg Woffingham in Dublin, the sisters were soon moving in lofty circles. At a ball held at Dublin Castle in 1748, they were presented to the Earl of Harrington, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.

William Stanhope, 1st Earl of Harrington
William Stanhope, 1st Earl of Harrington

Not possessing any suitable ballgowns, Maria and Elizabeth had to borrow costumes from a local theatre. But they made such an impression on the Earl that by 1750, he granted their mother Bridget a pension. With that, Bridget packed her bags and took the two girls back to England.

Attending local parties and balls in Cambridgeshire, the two sisters became well-known celebrities. News of their beauty spread to London, and in 1750, they were invited to attend the court of St James.

London newspapers were having a field day. Not only were they the talk of the town but Maria was noted for her lack of tact, and when asked by the aging King George II what royal spectacle she most wanted to see, she said she’d like to see a royal funeral. Fortunately for the girls, the King found it highly amusing.

George II by Thomas Hudson, 1744
George II by Thomas Hudson, 1744

Within two years, her sister Elizabeth was married off to a Duke, and she was married to an Earl with a Neo-Palladian mansion in the Worcestershire countryside.

Croome Court, Croome D'Abitot. Credit Mike Peel
Croome Court, Croome D’Abitot. Credit Mike Peel

George William, 6th Earl of Coventry whisked her away to Paris for their honeymoon.

Paris was a magical place and the fashion capital of the world. But alas, Maria was not happy. She couldn’t speak the language and her husband wouldn’t let her wear the rouge face powder that was all the rage. When she defied him and wore it to dinner one evening, he took out his handkerchief and rubbed it off her face. The French Court was a little too haughty for her taste.

George William, 6th Earl of Coventry and Maria Coventry, Countess of Coventry
George William, 6th Earl of Coventry and Maria Coventry, Countess of Coventry

But back in England, her popularity went from strength to strength. She was mobbed whenever she appeared in Hyde Park—eventually needing a guard.

Her husband, on the other hand, had already started to stray and had become involved with another famous beauty—the courtesan Kitty Fisher.

And so began a rivalry of beauty. Maria wore the heavy make-up which had become popular in London society. Sophisticated ladies of the French court, like Madame Pompadour, mistress to King Louis XV, had set a fashion of pale white skin with red rouged cheeks. The base ingredient of the make-up was lead.

Madame de Pompadour at Her Toilette, 1758
Madame de Pompadour at Her Toilette, 1758

Fashionable women (and men) were poisoning themselves with lead-based cosmetics. The lead would cause inflammation of the eyes, attack tooth enamel, and cause skin eruptions. The blemishes encouraged women to apply even more make-up to hide them, and eventually the lead would get into the blood and poison them to death.

1750. Box for rouge and patches. Gold and platinum. metmuseum
1750. Box for rouge and patches. Gold and platinum. metmuseum

On 30 September 1760, Maria, the beautiful Countess of Coventry, died prematurely at the age of 27.

Known for her beauty and her vanity, she was remembered in social circles as a “victim of cosmetics”.

Countess of Coventry by Jean-Étienne Liotard, 1749
Countess of Coventry by Jean-Étienne Liotard, 1749
Maria Gunning, Countess of Coventry by Hugh Douglas Hamilton, c.1760
Maria Gunning, Countess of Coventry by Hugh Douglas Hamilton, c.1760. Credit gogmsite.net

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David James

David James

I'm an Englishman in Boston. History is a joy—it binds us, it connects us, it guides us. I'm interested in making history more accessible and more fun. Join me on this fantastic voyage through time.