The tragic tale of Maria Gunning.
This lovely young lady was a well known London beauty of the era and paid a great price for her fame. She died at the very young age of 27 and her death was reputed to have been directly caused by her heavy use of the cosmetics of the day.
A celebrity, Miss Gunning delighted the populace with her running arguments with Kitty Fisher. Miss Fisher was another popular young lady with London society; you’ll hear more about her as my blog goes on.
The beautiful Maria appeared regularly in the news sheets of the day and eventually married the Duke of Hamilton. They went to Paris for their honeymoon. Sadly she was quite miserable in France and longed to return to London. She was mobbed on her first appearance in Hyde Park after her return.
Her new husband’s dislike of her cosmetics might have had something to do with her misery while in France.
If only she’d listened to his pleas to lay off the ‘slap’ she might have lived. Slap is a word used to this day to describe cosmetics. The tale of the Duke trying to wipe off her face paint with his handkerchief before he’d allow her to eat dinner is amusing, but very sad too, considering her early death.
So, what was this stuff she was daubing on her face? What did it do and why did a naturally beautiful young woman want to wear it?
In my story, A Gentleman’s Folly, my heroine Katherine wears this concoction too. I pleaded with her to stop but no; she whacked my knuckles with her fan and said, “No lady leaves the house without her face paint!”
Sadly face paints from the 18th century were made of some very deadly chemicals. The look they created is one we’d hardly recognise.
The base make up is white, very white. It is made from a lead paste and causes horrendous damage to the skin with prolonged use. Sometimes white powder was used too, or alone. This could be made from chalk or ground bone mixed with chalk. Whatever whitening the lady decided to use would coat her face, neck and her bosom. Ladies even went so far as to draw in blue lines on their breasts mimicking veins.
The sweep of blusher we might use today, in the 18th century was a circle of bright vermillion made from Spanish Wool, which was impregnated with colour. This was scoured on each cheek to load a circle of pink. Sometimes triangles were painted instead of the usual circle. To us the whole face would appear almost doll like and very artificial. Yet this style of paint remained very popular for a long time.
Lips were red, very red, and the colour came from a creamy paste brush painted on. This could be created by something as innocent as cochineal or as interesting as mineral oxides.
I love this next one. If eyebrows were too sparse they could be filled in with little strips of mouse hair! Eeek. These could be glued on in various places. No one seems to record where the unfortunate skinned mice came from.
Small black velvet or silk patches were also gummed to the skin and often had a meaning. My heroine Katherine wears one to the ball at Ranelagh, to show how flirtatious she feels. The patches also had another use. The covered the marks of venereal disease on the skin.
With age as the face sagged, should folks then be lucky enough to live so long, rounders or plumpers for the cheeks in the form of cork balls could be purchased. Mind you I have no idea how they could be kept in place while talking or eating. Dentures for those with missing teeth were also made, some from wood, ouch, others from carved ivory and some it is said were real teeth taken from dead and refitted into spring hinged fixtures for the mouth.
In addition to the cosmetics and liberal use of perfumes, hair was sometimes powdered in the 1750’s, though the styles were simpler than the later mountainous creations of the 1770’s.
I have enjoyed writing about this, some of you may have heard about the dreadful face paint before, for those of you who have not, it might be a bit of a surprise.
Tomorrow I will tackle the ticklish subject of bathing in the 18th century.
Do drop by.