Maria Gunning

From A Compendium of Irish Biography, 1878

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Gunning, Maria (Countess of Coventry), and Elizabeth (Duchess of Hamilton and Duchess of Argyll), celebrated Irish beauties, born about 1733 and 1734 were daughters of John Gunning, of Castlecoote, in the County of Roscommon. When budding into womanhood, their mother sent them to Dublin in the hope that they would make their way on the stage. Sheridan was kind to them, lent them dresses, and they were presented at the Castle. Their exceeding beauty created a wonderful sensation; they went to London, and were the belles of the season 1751. Horace Walpole writes of them as "two Irish girls of no fortune who make more noise than any of their predecessors since the days of Helen, and who are declared the handsomest women alive."

In February 1752 Elizabeth was married to the Duke of Hamilton, a dissipated gambler. Three weeks afterwards, Maria, the elder and handsomer, was married to the Earl of Coventry. Among the many stories told of her extreme silliness is her awkward reply to the old King George II.'s enquiry as to whether she was not sorry that there were to be no more masquerades: — "She was tired of them — indeed she was surfeited with most London sights; there was but one left that she wanted to see — and that was a coronation!"

Elizabeth became a widow in 1758, and refusing the addresses of the Duke of Bridgewater, gave her hand a twelvemonth later to Colonel John Campbell (who became Duke of Argyll in 1770). Maria died from the effects of the excessive use of white paint in October 1760 (aged about 27), a fortnight before George II. Her son became 7th Earl of Coventry.

In 1776 Elizabeth was created Baroness of Hamilton in her own right. She was one of the Ladies of the Bed-chamber to Queen Charlotte. She died 20th December 1790, aged 56. The wife of two Dukes, she was the mother of four of the 7th and 8th Dukes of Hamilton by her first husband; and of the 6th and 7th Dukes of Argyll by her second. The present (1877) Duke of Argyll is her grandson. In the Tour in the Hebrides we learn that Johnson and Boswell visited her and the Duke at Inverary.

On 23rd October 1773 Boswell complains bitterly of her coldness and neglect of himself; but she appears to have been all politeness to Johnson. Boswell consoled himself for her rudeness by the remark: " When I recollected that my punishment was inflicted by so dignified a beauty, I had that kind of consolation which a man would feel who is strangled by a silken cord... He [Dr. Johnson] was much pleased with our visit at the castle." Describing portraits of the Misses Gunning, Mr. Walford [129a] says: "The two sisters are very much alike; both are remarkable for their small mouths, high foreheads, aquiline noses, and arched eyebrows. Certainly Maria would be adjudged by the ladies now-a-days the prettier in detail — she is slim and; elegant, though rather inanimate; but I much prefer the looks of Elizabeth, who is darker, plumper, and more intelligent, and altogether a finer woman."

There was a third and younger sister, Catherine, who, in 1769, married Robert Travis and passed most of her life in Ireland. She had a daughter who, in the next generation, kept up the fame of the family for personal beauty. It is amusing now-a-days to read of the excitement their beauty occasioned — of the nobility at a drawing-room clambering on to chairs and tables in the presence of royalty, to get a sight of them; of 700 persons sitting up all night in and about an inn to see them pass to their chaise in the morning; of a guard of soldiers being necessary to protect Lady Coventry from the curiosity of the public. This interest continued even after her death: 10,000 persons went to see the outside of her coffin.

Sources

129a. Families, Tales of our Great: Edward Walford. London, 1877. See also No. 229.

198a. Johnson's, Samuel, Journey in the Western Islands of Scotland. London, 1775.

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