"O Jesu – Coz – why this fantastic dress?
I fear some Frenzy does your Head possess;
That thus you sweep along a Turkish tail,
And let that Robe o'er Modesty prevail…
Why in this naughty vestment are you seen?
Dress'd up for Love, with such an Air and Mien,
As if you wou'd commence Sultana Queen."
I love this portrait on so many levels. It is all blue and white, like Delft china – or a cloudy nighttime sky. The colors are so delicate that they're in danger of blending together and then vanishing altogether within a monochromatic cloud. They face each other, come close, but then swirl away, like flirtatious dancers.
I love her expression, so wry and thoughtful. What is going on in her head, behind her young and weary eyes? This rose and white figure pensively resting on starry cushions is Mary Gunning, the Countess of Coventry – known throughout England as one of the 'Gunning Beauties'. Something stands before her gaze here: she confronts it, analyzes it…before lanquidly accepting it.
She is about 21 in this paiinting – is she already wondering how long her beauty will last; how long will men's glasses be raised to toast her? Is she wondering about the throbbing in her face about the sores hidden beneath the layers of lead-based makeup? Does she see the ghost of her great-great-great-grandmother Grace O'Malley, a famous pirate of Ireland…does she wish she could have ridden the galloping waves with her? Does she see her Irish childhood? Or her London fame?
I love her costume. The style was known as 'Turkish': a la turque. In the second half of the 18th century it took Europe by sirocco storm. Caftans, sultanes, Circassian robes were worn, chased with oriental embroidery and decorated with furs, tassels and fringe. Ornate belts would catch the wayward robes in a tight clasp and luxuriously baggy trousers gave the lady a masculine, confident air. There were no gardens, stuffed birds orminiature ships invading feminine coiffures: they were replaced by dainty silk turbans, colored ribbons, jewels and feathers. Roccoco stiffness was replaced by the sinuous exoticism of the Far East. Fashionable society was suddenly a whimsical seraglio.
At the height of their powers, Mary Gunning and her sisters were the 'goddesses' of the court of porphyria-addled George III. They were 'the handsomest women alive': Horace Walpole wrote of their 'surpassing loveliness'. People not ashamed to worship a beautiful face followed them, mobbed them, crowded the theaters and great houses, gazed into windows glowing gold with melting candle-light just to glimpse their tapestry robes and their white skin.
When this portrait was painted, Mary had 6 years to live. The use of lead-based paint was a deadly art necessary to create a pale and seamless complexion. Society's queens must appear chaste and untouched, yet the makeup penetrated their skin and destroyed their blood. Perhaps what Mary contemplates here are the wages of beauty, what one must surrender for admiration and the price of a merry life.