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Lady Sarah Archer, facing the Press…

This is the first part of a trilogy of posts linked to one of the 18th Century’s most flamboyant (one might say fragrant…) women, Lady Sarah Archer. Boy, was she loved/hated by cartoonists of the day! You cannot get much more vicious than this  splendid caricature by the cartoonist Thomas Rowlandson, (1756-1827) dating from 1792 (when the subject was just over fifty years old).

It is entitled “Six Stages of Mending a Face” and is ‘dedicated with Respect to the Rt Hon Lady Archer’. Huh, if that is respectful….! It shows her as a bald- headed old crone, putting in a glass eye, inserting a set of dentures, applying make-up and then appearing (bottom left) as a somewhat younger woman. What had she done to deserve such treatment?

Another  rather kinder portrait was  done in 1781 when she was forty. It was by Charles Bretherton and appears on the British Museum site.

Kinder maybe, but it reminds me rather of Maggie Thatcher caricatures: she is shown with a distinctively hooked nose – and with far too much make-up. It is unclear why the likes of Rowlandson,  Cruikshank and Gillray so hated women wearing rouge – to modern eyes why shouldn’t she, perhaps a plain Jane, make the most of herself? But over and over again she is ridiculed for her reliance on cosmetics.

The Morning Post at the end of 1788 announced, incorrectly, that Lady Sarah had died. The edition of January 5th 1789 contained an apology saying “The Lady Archer whose death  was announced in this paper of Saturday, is not the celebrated character whose cosmetic powers have long been held in public estimation”

Three days later it reported: “It is said that the dealers in Carmine and Dead White as well as perfumers in general have it in contemplation to present AN ADDRESS to Lady Archer in gratitude for her not having DIED according to a late alarming report.”

This is the background to a fine picture of the grande dame heading for her favourite cosmetic shop in Pall Mall.To give it its full title “The Portland Place a-r.  [archer] Driving without a beau to R-d’s perfume warehouse P-ll M-ll: 

Lady Sarah is, as always, shown driving a very high gig, poised on high springs, with four horses; she was famous for driving matching greys. She wears a feathered hat and a coat of masculine cut – hall-marks which were always picked on by cartoonists who hated her ‘unfeminine’ appearance. On the side of the gig is an “A” surmounted by a baron’s coronet. “A” also appears on the harness of the horses.

Behind the horses on the right is the large glass window of a shop, above which a sign reads “PERFUME WAREHOUS[E]”. Over the door is written “Italian Washes, Ivory Teeth, Mouse Eye Brows, &c.”; and “The Best French Roush”. In the window various articles are exhibited: glass jars, one inscribed “Marsh”, switches of hair, a mask, and a fool’s cap, &c. Its date: 18 June 1782

Her main crime would therefore appear to be that she was a woman of independent means, out on the streets without a male companion, and handling her horses with considerable skill and dexterity. She had been born as Sarah West in 1741, the daughter of a Warwickshire landowner and Member of Parliament. When she was twenty she married Andrew Archer,  who a few years later became 2nd Lord Archer, Baron of Umberslade. Burke’s Peerage suggests that she bore him three daughters (Harriet, Maria and Sarah) while cartoonists refer to a fourth daughter (Anne) Her one son was born in 1781 but he died in infancy – certainly prior to the death of his father the Baron in 1788.

As a widow of 37, with teenage daughters of a rebellious nature, she cannot have had it easy. The story goes that she was so addicted to gambling that she started to raid the children’s inheritance to fund her gambling habit, and that as a result the daughters could not wait to get out from under her feet and escape from her household. This gave rise to a series of cartoons which will be featured in the next blog, but I haven’t finished with the mother and her gambling ways yet…

In this 1792 Gillray cartoon entitled ‘Modern Hospitality, or a Friendly Party in High Life’ the harridan is shown, in riding habit, next to the Prince Regent. She wins the trick with the Jack – the implication being that she has cheated, hence the sub- title “The Knave Wins All”. On the extreme right, the Whig Leader Charles James Fox shows his dismay, while underneath the caption reads:

“To those earthly Divinities who charmed 20 years ago….Woman! Woman! Everlasting is you power over us, for in youth you charm away our Hearts, and in your after-years you charm away our purses.”

The etching appears courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

By then Lady Archer was well-known as one of the Faro Ladies;  along with Lady Buckinghamshire and others she held soirees (sometimes disguised as theatrical evenings) taking it in turns to use each others houses. They were really no more than high-class gambling dens (illegal). Men had their clubs such as White’s, but women would not be allowed there, so they made their own arrangements…. and added to their pin money by ‘adjusting’ the odds in their favour. Their preferred game was Faro, a card game where punters gamble on the next card to be turned up. In theory at any rate it offered good odds to gamblers – but not if the order in which the cards were turned up could be manipulated in favour of the Faro Bank. The Faro Ladies seemed to be expert manipulators! On one occasion it was alleged that someone had stolen the bank, although this may have been an allegation made by Lady Buckinghamshire to elicit sympathy. It gave rise to this cartoon, shown courtesy of the British Museum:

It shows Lord Buckinghamshire rushing in to inform his wife that they were ruined because “the Bank’s stole” and offering to fetch a horse and saddle. Lady Buckinghamshire is aghast.

“The bank stole, my Lord – Why, I secur’d it in the housekeepers room myself! This is what comes of admitting Jacobins in the house! Ah the Cheats! Seven hundred gone smack – without a single Cock of the Cards!”

Over on the extreme right Lady Archer, clad as usual in red, remarks “Stole – Bless me, why a Lady had her Pocket picked at my house last Monday”

The excessive gambling did not go down well with the public – it seemed too much like the excesses across the Channel which gave rise to the Revolution in France. There was disquiet that the Faro Ladies were flouting the law and getting away with it because of their high status. Things reached a head with the death of a young man who attended  these Faro parties, by the name of Henry Weston (more of him in a later blog).

Lord Chief Justice Kenyon had got fed up with the antics of these ladies and their ‘Faro’s Bank’ and the ruination visited upon their followers, announcing:

“If any prosecutions are fairly brought before me, and the parties are justly convicted, whatever may be their rank or station in the country, though they should be the finest ladies in the land, they shall certainly exhibit themselves at the pillory.”

This gave rise to more cartoons, such as these:

In this caricature  she is literally ‘being pilloried’ for her devotion to gaming at Faro (Lady Buckingham on the left, Lady Archer on the right). Entitled ‘Exaltation of Faro’s Daughters’ it shows a card reading “Cure for Gambling. Published by Lord Kenyon in the Court of Kings Bench May 9th 1796”. The cartoonist is of course James Gillray and appears courtesy of the the National Portrait Gallery.

Another Gillray features Lord Kenyon flogging Lady Buckinghamshire as she is tied to the back of a cart, while her friend Lady Sarah Archer languishes in the pillory.

Again, this picture comes courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

Lady Archer  features in this spankingly good print entitled “The Royal Joke, or Black Jacks Delight” from 1788 – she is the figure at the left in the red riding habit.


She appears to be featured in much the same outfit in this final (Gillray) tribute to her, from September 1791, entitled “Finishing Touches”. It shows Lady Sarah at her Dressing Table applying rouge by the bucket-load, while she wears a smart if somewhat manly garb – the top hat softened by tall feathers, the cuffs on her tightly cut riding jacket fashionably buttoned à la marinière, the high collar and braided lapels all typical of the period. Outside through the window can be seen her high phaeton.

More of Lady Archer and her children in my next post…

5 thoughts on “Lady Sarah Archer, facing the Press…”

  1. It’s also a useful contemporary depiction of those minor punishments enacted from medieval times, the pillory and flogging at the cart’s arse, invaluable to historians trying to puzzle out the barbaric legal penalties available at the time. presumably the scold’s bridle had gone out of fashion or it would have been depicted for sure… as I recall both pillory and being flogged behind a cart were punishments used for selling short weight, adulterated goods and minor fraud, which can suggest that the artists were suggesting the adulteration of the natural looks of a woman, as well perhaps as hinting again at cheating taking place in the faro dens.

  2. At one time there was a law passed against women wearing false hair, cosmetics etc in order to entice men. Still, I think that was unnecessarily cruel about Sarah, Lady Archer.
    However, the fact that she was known for her cosmetics makes one wonder if she wasn’t perhaps dressing a sheep to look like lamb.
    While the government cracked down on faro houses, and the women who were known to play that game were ridiculed and persecuted, the male clubs continued doing what they wanted without let or hindrance. Of course, the men who made the laws were members of those clubs.
    The caricaturists of the day do seem to have been especially harsh on women.

    1. Well let us put it this way, the caricaturists, always male, took great delight in pilloring ladies who succeeded in a man’s world. Lady Archer was in her own way making her claim for independence – not for her getting by on ‘pin money’. She was an entrpreneur, albeit a crooked one, and she lived high on the hog as a result of her ‘endeavours’.

      1. I absolutely agree. Her “crime” most apparent is her independence and nerve. How dare she not be intimidated by the patriarchy? I find the cartoonists more repugnant than their degrading depictions.

  3. Ahhhh, so the red cheeks is rouge! (I should really read your blog posts in order!)
    And I presume the illegal nature of the gambling might be that they actually have a gambling bank (which the men’s clubs did), rather than just a “card-party” where no bank was needed…
    Where on earth do you find all these caricatures?! They are really great!

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