Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire

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Georgiana Cavendish
Joshua Reynolds - Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire.jpg
Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Sir Joshua Reynolds, c. 1775, The Devonshire Collection
Born Georgiana Spencer
(1757-06-07)7 June 1757
Althorp, Northamptonshire
Died 30 March 1806(1806-03-30) (aged 48)
Devonshire House, London
Title Duchess of Devonshire
Spouse(s) William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire
Children Georgiana Howard, Countess of Carlisle
Harriet Leveson-Gower, Countess Granville
William Cavendish, 6th Duke of Devonshire
Eliza Courtney (illegitimate)
Parents John Spencer, 1st Earl Spencer
Margaret Georgiana Poyntz

Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (née Spencer; /ɒrˈnə/ jor-JAY-nə; 7 June 1757 – 30 March 1806) was the first wife of the 5th Duke of Devonshire, and mother of the 6th Duke of Devonshire. Her father, the 1st Earl Spencer, was a great-grandson of the 1st Duke of Marlborough. Her niece was Lady Caroline Lamb.


With her siblings, Henrietta and George, by Angelica Kauffman, c. 1774. The painting was painted just before Georgiana's marriage to the Duke of Devonshire
"THE DEVONSHIRE, or Most Approved Method of Securing Votes", by Thomas Rowlandson, 1784

The Duchess of Devonshire was a celebrated beauty and socialite who gathered around her a large salon of literary and political figures. She was also an active political campaigner in an age when women's suffrage was still over a century away. The Spencers and the Cavendishes were Whigs. The Duchess of Devonshire campaigned for the Whigs—particularly for a distant cousin, Charles James Fox—at a time when the King (George III) and his Ministers had a direct influence over the House of Commons, principally through their power of patronage. During the 1784 general election, the Duchess was rumoured to have traded kisses for votes in favour of Fox, and was satirised by Thomas Rowlandson in his print "THE DEVONSHIRE, or Most Approved Method of Securing Votes".

Famously, when she was stepping out of her carriage one day, an Irish dustman exclaimed: "Love and bless you, my lady, let me light my pipe in your eyes!", a compliment which she often recalled whenever others complimented her by retorting, "After the dustman's compliment, all others are insipid."[1][2]

In 1779, she anonymously published the epistolary novel The Sylph. It has been speculated that The Sylph was written by Sophia Briscoe. A receipt at the British Library suggests that Briscoe was paid for The Sylph, but it is thought more likely that Briscoe may have served as an intermediary between the Duchess and her publisher, so that Georgiana could keep her anonymity.[3]

The Duchess was also instrumental in formulating, with Thomas Beddoes, the idea of establishing a Pneumatic Institution in Bristol.[4]

Husband and children[edit]

Lady Georgiana Spencer married the Duke of Devonshire on her seventeenth birthday: 7 June 1774.

She had a number of miscarriages before giving birth to four children: three with her husband, and an illegitimate daughter fathered by Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey. She also raised the Duke's illegitimate daughter, Charlotte, who was conceived with a mistress.

  • Georgiana Howard, Countess of Carlisle (née the Lady Georgiana Dorothy Cavendish; called "Little G"; 12 July 1783 – 8 August 1858), married the 6th Earl of Carlisle and had issue.
  • Harriet Leveson-Gower, Countess Granville (née the Lady Harriet Elizabeth Cavendish; called "Harryo"; 29 August 1785 – 25 November 1862), married the 1st Earl Granville and had issue.
  • William Cavendish, Marquis of Hartington, later 6th Duke of Devonshire (William George Spencer Cavendish; called "Hart"; 21 May 1790 – 18 January 1858), never married.
  • Eliza Courtney (20 February 1792 – 2 May 1859), illegitimate daughter of the 2nd Earl Grey. Georgiana was forced to give her to Grey's parents. Eliza married Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Ellice and named her eldest daughter Georgiana.

The Duchess introduced the Duke to her best friend, the Lady Elizabeth Foster (who later married the Duke), and lived in a triad with them for the next 25 years. Lady Elizabeth had two illegitimate children by the Duke, a son (Augustus Clifford) and a daughter (Caroline Rosalie St Jules).

Fashion and debt[edit]

The Duchess of Devonshire is famous not only for her marital arrangements, her catastrophic affairs, her beauty and sense of style and best clothes, and her political campaigning, but also for her love of gambling. Even though her own family, the Spencers, and her husband's family, the Cavendishes, were immensely wealthy, she was reported to have died deeply in debt due to her excesses. She died on 30 March 1806, aged 48, from what was thought to be an abscess of the liver; she was buried at All Saints Parish Church (which is now Derby Cathedral). At her death, she owed today's equivalent of £3,720,000.[5] The Duchess was so petrified of her husband discovering the extent of her debts that she kept them secret; the Duke only discovered the extent of her debts after her death and remarked, "Is that all?"....[5]

Stolen painting[edit]

Georgiana's elaborate fashion sense is captured in this Thomas Gainsborough portrait, the famous stolen painting.

During her years in the public eye, Georgiana was painted several times by both Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds.

Gainsborough's painting of her around 1785, in a large black hat (a style which she made sensationally fashionable, and came to be known as the 'Gainsborough' or 'portrait' hat), has become famous for its fascinating history. After having been lost from Chatsworth House for many years, it was discovered in the 1830s in the home of an elderly schoolmistress, who had cut it down somewhat in order to fit it over her fireplace. In 1841 she sold it to a picture dealer for £56, and he later gave it to a friend, the art collector Wynn Ellis. When Ellis died, the painting went for sale at Christie's in London in 1876, where it was bought by the Bond Street art dealer William Agnew for the then astronomical sum of 10,000 guineas. Three weeks later it was stolen from the London gallery of Thomas Agnew & Sons, a theft that was highly publicised at the time, and for years the newspapers printed stories about claimed sightings of the painting.[6][7]

However, not until 25 years later did it become known that the thief had been the notorious "Napoleon of Crime", Adam Worth. He had intended to sell it to come up with the bail to release his brother from prison, but when his brother was freed without bail, he decided to keep it for himself, for "a rainy day", and brought it to his homeland, the United States. In early 1901, through the American detective agency Pinkerton's, he negotiated a return of the painting to Agnew's son for $25,000. The portrait and payment were exchanged in Chicago in March 1901, and a couple of months later the painting arrived in London and was put up for sale. The Wall Street financier J. P. Morgan immediately travelled to England to obtain the painting and later claimed to have paid $150,000 for it.

The painting remained in Morgan's family until 1994, when it was put up for sale at Sotheby's and was purchased by the 11th Duke of Devonshire for the Chatsworth House collection for $408,870.[8] So, after more than 200 years it returned to Chatsworth.[7]

Titles and styles[edit]

  • 7 June 1757 – 3 April 1761 : Miss Georgiana Spencer
  • 3 April 1761 – 1 November 1765 : The Honourable Georgiana Spencer
  • 1 November 1765 – 7 June 1774 :The Lady Georgiana Spencer
  • 7 June 1774 – 30 March 1806 : Her Grace The Duchess of Devonshire

In popular culture[edit]

Film portrayals[edit]



Further reading[edit]

Media related to Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire at Wikimedia Commons

  • Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, Amanda Foreman (1998) ISBN 0-00-655016-9 (now published as The Duchess)
  • Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire, Brian Masters, Hamish Hamilton, 1981.
  • Georgiana, The Earl of Bessborough (editor), John Murray, London, 1955.
  • Some Old Time Beauties by Thomson Willing Featuring a different version of her picture as well as written material on her reputation.
  • The Two Duchesses.., Family Correspondence relating to.., Vere Foster (editor), Blackie & Son, London, Glasgow & Dublin, 1898.
  • An Aristocratic Affair - The life of Georgiana's sister Harriet, Countess Bessborough, Janet Gleeson, 2006, ISBN 0-593-05487-3
  • Portraits of Georgiana by Gainsborough, Reynolds, Romney, Cosway and others.
  • Extra material not included in Amanda Foreman's book
  • Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire, The Sylph, ed. Jonathan David Gross (Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 2007), ISBN 0-8101-2229-4.


  1. ^ "Beauty — A natural compliment", The Every-day Book and Table Book. Vol III., ed. William Hone, (London: 1838) p 344. Retrieved on 2008-06-11
  2. ^ "The Disappearing Duchess", The New York Times, 31 July 1994. Retrieved 11 July 2008.
  3. ^ Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire (1779). The Sylph. Northwestern University Press. p. 11. ISBN 978-0-8101-2229-1. Retrieved 28 April 2013. 
  4. ^ Bergman, Norman A. (April 1998). "Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, and Princess Diana: a parallel". J R Soc Med. 91 (4): 217–219. PMC 1296647. PMID 9659313. 
  5. ^ a b Michael Hellicar (29 August 2008). "Diana and me - by Keira... or how movie marketers used the princess' troubled marriage to promote The Duchess". Daily Mail. Retrieved 23 March 2010. 
  6. ^ The Sydney Mail 13 October 1877: Gainsborough's "Duchess of Devonshire" Retrieved 2012-01-29
  7. ^ a b Number One London 26 May 2010: Duchess of Devonshire Stolen Retrieved 29 July 2012
  8. ^ Macintyre, Ben (31 July 1994). "The Disappearing Duchess". The New York Times. Retrieved 30 May 2013.