In 1742 William Hogarth was commissioned to paint a satirical piece about fashion for a slightly eccentric and forceful lady called Mary Edwards. She got a mention in a guest blog about Hogarth which Michael Dean did for me a couple of years ago, which you can find here. She had been born in 1704 and lived in Kensington. An extremely wealthy woman, she had suffered at the hands of people who had ridiculed her for her lack of fashion sense – so for her, this was pay-back time.
Miss Edwards had reputedly inherited a vast fortune from her father when she was 24. He was Francis Edwards, a wealthy merchant who lived in the Leicestershire village of Welham. It was said that she enjoyed an annual income of between £50,000 – £100,000, so it was little wonder that she was a magnet for fortune hunters of the day. One was a young Scottish nobleman called Lord Anne Hamilton (named, apparently, after his godmother Queen Anne). He was handsome, profligate, and at 22 was five years younger than Mary. No doubt she thought that he looked rather gorgeous in his uniform as an ensign in the Coldstream Guards. He was however an utterly unsuitable person for the wealthy heiress to fall for. In 1731 they allegedly went through a ceremony of marriage in the Fleet and the following year she gave birth to a son, Gerard Anne. The marriage was a disaster and when he showed rather more interest in spending her money than in attending to her needs, she decided to discard Lord Anne.
This was easier said than done, but she showed a resourcefulness which was rather remarkable. She was determined to save her fortune for herself and her son, so she apparently bribed the Fleet chaplains to destroy all records of the marriage. She then placed a notice in the register of her local church of St. Mary Abbots, Kensington stating that she was a single woman. No matter that this made her son appear illegitimate – it was a price she was prepared to pay to offload the unwanted husband. I almost feel sorry for his avaricious Lordship.
I had nearly considered including him in the list of rakes and roués in my forthcoming book “In bed with the Georgians, Sex Scandal and Satire.” * But somehow he was as much to be pitied as loathed, so I left him out. There are, after all, others with no redeeming features whatsoever! Lord Anne was completely out-manoeuvred, because he simply had no evidence to show that they ever married. On May 22nd 1734 he accepted defeat and signed a deed returning all Miss Edwards’ property to her and relinquishing all further claims on her. So, she had regained her property empire, her stocks and shares and all her wealth, and when she died on August 23rd 1743, aged only thirty-eight years old, she left her entire fortune to her son. I will refrain from suggesting that while he may have appeared to have been illegitimate, at least he was a wealthy bastard…
Lord Anne went on to marry “properly” in 1742, sired a couple of sons and died in France in 1748 at the age of 39.
Mary was a frequent patroness of William Hogarth, and was arguably the most important supporter that he had in the decade between 1733 and 1743. There is a report that she purchased Hogarth’s painting of Southwark Fair, and as well as buying his paintings she and those in her social circle commissioned family portraits. Hogarth had painted a conventional portrait of Mary in 1742, shown at the top of this blog, in a rather splendid red dress and sporting some suitably opulent jewellery, and shown courtesy of the Frick Collection. It is an undeniably affectionate portrait, reflecting the close friendship between sitter and artist.
Then there is this picture by Hogarth showing the Edwards family before the split. A detailed analysis of the picture, and the various constituent elements in it, appears in an article by Maisoon Rehani, Picture Researcher at the Paul Mellon Centre, here. I rather like the suggestion that the dog is actually baring its teeth at Lord Anne, while the small boy is washing a toy soldier – cleansing himself of his father’s military connections. Mary Edwards is reading the Spectator while resting her elbow on a pile of books, identifiable by their titles as being suitably educational for the young boy.
Hogarth had earlier come up with this image of the young Gerard Anne in his cradle. It belongs to the National Trust and is on display at Upton House in Warwickshire. I can’t say I am a great lover of paintings featuring small babies, but there you go….
And so it was that in 1742 Mary Edwards commissioned this satirical painting, entitled Taste in High Life, for the sum of sixty guineas. The version shown below is an engraving made by Samuel Phillips in 1798, under commission from John Boydell for a posthumous edition of Hogarth’s works, but was not published until 1808.
The High Life shows two women wearing large hooped dresses, the one on the left with a huge uplift at the rear. The lady in the centre is almost certainly a parody of Mary Edwards herself, sporting patches/beauty spots, while her enormous muslin dress is decorated with overblown roses. She and her male friend are enthusiastically examining a tiny porcelain tea cup, while the man holds the saucer to go with it. The man is thought to be “Beau” Collyer, 2nd Earl of Portmore, a somewhat foppish example of manhood. He sports a ludicrously long queue in his hair, carries a big muff and a tricorne hat under his arm, and his sword is tied up in his clothing, making his jacket flare like a skirt. In the foreground a monkey is dressed to the nines and is shown as a servant, using a lorgnette to read a list of items recently bought at auction. The lady on the left tickles the chin of a young be-turbaned black servant – reputedly based on Ignatius Sancho. His coat tails are so ludicrously long that there is no way he could stand and walk without tripping over… He may be a slave, but the ladies are also slaves – to fashion.
We can take this as a highly fashionable household of the day, one where the occupants are ridiculed for spending all their time and money on acquiring uselessly impractical ornaments while disporting themselves in clothing which not only looked absurd, but which precluded free movement.
The impracticality of the fashions is reflected in the image on the fire-screen which shows a lady trapped in her sedan chair, unable to manoeuvre out of the conveyance. Three of the pictures hanging on the wall are fashion plates, while the main picture emphasises the passing nature of fashion, with a cupid using bellows to burn a bonfire of wigs and hoops. The same picture also features a cut-away view of a lady wearing a hooped dress, in the style of a classical sculpture of a female standing on a plinth.
“Beau” Collyer was famous for his immaculate dress. Born in 1700 he became MP for Wycombe in 1726 and represented Andover between 1727 and 1730, when he succeeded to the Portmore earldom. Sir Joshua Reynolds did this portrait of him on the right when he was 58. He was particularly successful as a horse breeder, and was also a founding Governor of the Foundling Hospital, dedicated to promoting the welfare of abandoned children.
Hogarth never really liked the High Life and refused to allow any engravings to be made, so the one shown here was executed after the copyright had expired. And just by way of contrast, let us end (on a bum note….) with a parody of how fashions changed – with a print made circa 1794. As it says, the left-hand image, taken from the picture hanging in the background in Hogarth’s High Life, shows “The Mode” in 1742 as a contrast to “The Ton” of 1794. Together they are entitled “A section of The Petticoat – or the Venus of ’42 and ’94”. Note that just as the hoop-skirt has been replaced with high-waisted narrow skirt, so the high-heeled shoes of 1742 have given way to the flat shoes of 1794.
*For anyone interested in my book, it comes out in the autumn and is available on pre-release via Pen & Sword here.