Kitty Fisher

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Joshua Reynolds, Kitty Fisher and Parrot, 1763/4

Kitty Fisher (died 1767) was a prominent British courtesan. Her celebrity was boosted by the attention that Sir Joshua Reynolds and other artists paid her. By emphasizing Fisher's beauty, audacity, and charm, portraits promoted her reputation, and prompted spectators to view her with redoubled awe.

Life as a courtesan[edit]

Born Catherine Marie Fischer,[1] she was originally a milliner, whom Lieutenant-General (then Ensign) Anthony George Martin (d. 1800) reportedly introduced to London high life.[2] With a flair for publicity, she became known for her affairs with men of wealth. Her appearance and dress were scrutinized and copied, scurrilous broadsheets and satires upon her were printed and circulated, and her portrait by Reynolds as Cleopatra Dissolving the Pearl was engraved.

When he visited London in 1763, Giacomo Casanova met Fisher and wrote:

... the illustrious Kitty Fisher, who was just beginning to be fashionable. She was magnificently dressed, and it is no exaggeration to say that she had on diamonds worth five hundred thousand francs. Goudar told me that if I liked I might have her then and there for ten guineas. I did not care to do so, however, for, though charming, she could only speak English, and I liked to have all my senses, including that of hearing, gratified. When she had gone, Mrs Wells told us that Kitty had eaten a bank-note for a thousand guineas, on a slice of bread and butter, that very day.[3] The note was a present from Sir Akins, brother of the fair Mrs Pitt. I do not know whether the bank thanked Kitty for the present she had made it.[4]

Kitty maintained a famous rivalry with Maria Gunning, who became Lady Coventry, due to Kitty's affair with Gunning's husband, George William Coventry, 6th Earl of Coventry.

Giustiniana Wynne, visiting London at the time, wrote:

"The other day they ran into each other in the park and Lady Coventry asked Kitty the name of the dressmaker who had made her dress. Kitty Fisher answered she had better ask Lord Coventry as he had given her the dress as a gift." The altercation continued with Lady Coventry calling her an impertinent woman, and Kitty replying that she would have to accept this insult because Maria became her 'social superior' on marrying Lord Coventry, but she was going to marry a Lord herself just to be able to answer back.[5]

Giustiniana also wrote that

"She lives in the greatest possible splendor,[6] spends twelve thousand pounds a year, and she is the first of her social class to employ liveried servants - she even has liveried chaise porters." [7]

Immortalised in art, diaries and letters[edit]

Nathaniel Hone painted her in 1765, at the height of her popularity. [1] His famous painting, now in the National Portrait Gallery, London, shows her with a kitten ('kitty'), which is trying to get at a goldfish in a bowl ('fisher'). Reflected in the bowl are the faces of a crowd of people, looking through a window.

Besides sitting multiple times for Sir Joshua Reynolds, [2] [3] she was painted by Philip Mercier, James Northcote, and Richard Purcell, among others. [4] [5] [6]

Apart from the letters of Giustiniana Wynne, she is mentioned in the diaries and letters of people as varied as Madame D'Arblay and Horace Walpole.

In 1766, she married John Norris, son of the M.P. for Rye and grandson of Admiral Sir John Norris. She came to live at her husband's family house, Hemsted (now the premises of the prestigious English public school, Benenden School). She settled into the role of mistress of Hemsted, building up Norris's fortune, and was liked by the local folk, especially as she was generous to the poor. She died only four months after her marriage, some sources say from the effects of lead-based cosmetics, some from smallpox, in 1767. Her last wish was to be buried in Benenden churchyard dressed in her best ball gown.

She is immortalized in the nursery rhyme, Lucy Locket:

"Lucy Locket lost her pocket,
Kitty Fisher found it;
But ne'er a penny was there in't
Except the binding round it."

Music publisher Peter Thompson also published a country dance bearing her name in Volume 2 of Thompson's Compleat Collection of 200 Country Dances (Publ. 1764).

A fictionalized version of Kitty Fisher appeared in the 1991 Channel Four historic musical fantasy Ghosts of Oxford Street, played by Kirsty MacColl.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ A German background, suggested as a possibility in the Dictionary of National Biography, is based on Sir Joshua Reynold's spelling of her name consistently as "Fischer" and once as "Fisscher".
  2. ^  "Fisher, Catherine Maria". Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900. 
  3. ^ Reynolds' fancy piece of her, Kitty Fisher as Cleopatra Dissolving the Pearl (1759), is at the Tate Gallery (on-line catalog entry); to reinforce the identification, Reynolds posed her in the same manner as a Cleopatra by Angelo Trevisani in the Galleria Spada, Rome (Edgar Wind, "'Borrowed Attitudes' in Reynolds and Hogarth" Journal of the Warburg Institute, 2.2 (October 1938), pp. 182-185 , illus. pls 30e, 30f).
  4. ^ In London And Moscow: The English by Jacques Casanova de Seingalt
  5. ^ Bayntun History.com
  6. ^ In Carrington Street in fashionable Mayfair, according to DNB.
  7. ^ Quoted in A Venetian Affair by Andrea di Robilant)

External links[edit]