Georgian Celebrities – The Gunning Sisters
In Georgian England, a real life Cinderella story gripped the nation. What made this story even more interesting was that it featured not one, but two, beautiful heroines. So how did two unknown sisters from a humble background take London society by storm and marry into the most aristocratic families in the land? Move over Kate and Pippa! Were they alive today, the Gunning sisters would undoubtedly outshine even the Middletons.
Maria and Elizabeth Gunning were born in about 1733 in Hemingford Grey in Huntingdonshire, two of the five daughters of Irishman John Gunning and his wife the Honourable Bridget Bourke. They were raised in genteel poverty and in 1740, or early 1741, the family returned to Ireland where they rented a house in Dublin and also spent time at the ancestral home of Castlecoote House, County Roscommon. As soon as they were old enough the sisters started working in the Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin to augment the family income. This was very unusual for well born women, as most actresses were also courtesans. By putting her daughters onto the stage, Mrs Gunning was probably the equivalent of a modern mum encouraging them into a career in lap dancing.
In 1748 the sisters were invited to a ball hosted at Dublin Castle by Viscountess Petersham. They were so poor that they could not even afford to buy suitable ball gowns for the occasion, but they were rescued by a theatre manager, Tom Sheridan (father of Richard Brinsley Sheridan)l who lent them a Lady Macbeth and a Juliet costume to wear to the dance. At some point during the ball they were presented the Earl of Harrington, who was the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and they made such a good impression on him that he granted their mother a generous pension.
On receipt of this, the ambitious Mrs Gunning immediately swept her daughters back to England, where they entered Huntingdonshire society. The two stunningly beautiful girls were an instant hit at nearby assemblies and balls, and soon their fame spread as far as London. They moved to the capital, where their celebrity continued to grow, taking polite society by storm. They were even accorded the honour of being presented at Court in December, 1750, a momentous event which was chronicled in the newspapers of the day. Their fame by this time was such that some of highest-born aristocrats climbed up on chairs and tables in an effort to gain a glimpse of them. They had to be closely guarded by a military escort whenever they went out as they were mobbed by dozens of people, all crowding close to stare at them. The fact that they were sisters, and possibly twins, seems to have had much to do with their appeal. Their portraits were painted and engravings circulated with poetic inscriptions: “Hibernia long with spleen beheld, Her Favorite Toasts by ours excelled, Resolved to outvie Britannia’s Fair, By her own Beauties,—sent a pair.” Not everyone was smitten, however, and Horace Walpole called them, “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.”