"Kitty Fisher and parrot", by Joshua Reynolds (1763/4)
|Born||Catherine Marie Fischer
|Spouse(s)||John Norris (m. 1766)|
Kitty Fisher (1741 – 1767) was one of the world's first celebrities famous not for being an actress, musician or member of the royalty, but simply for being famous. She was a prominent British courtesan who from her teen years carefully developed her public image, which was boosted by attention from Sir Joshua Reynolds and other artists. By emphasizing Fisher's beauty, audacity, and charm, portraits and newspaper and magazine articles promoted her reputation and prompted spectators to view her with redoubled awe. Her life exemplifies the emergence of mass media publishing and fame in an era when capitalism, commercialism, global markets, and rising emphasis on public opinion were transforming England.
Early life and courtesanship
Born Catherine Marie Fischer,[note 1] she was, according to some sources, originally a milliner, whom either Commodore Augustus Keppel or perhaps Lieutenant-General (then Ensign) Anthony George Martin (d. 1800) reportedly introduced to London high life. 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 several portraits of her by Reynolds, including one in which she posed as Cleopatra Dissolving the Pearl were engraved. Prints from these engravings were sold to thousands of her fans, making Kitty Fisher one of the first "pin-up" glamour girls.
In one famous incident, Fisher fell off her horse while riding in a public park. Scores of broadsheets, ballads, and prints mocked her, playing on the pun of being a fallen woman. But Kitty was not one to be outdone and immediately seized public attention for her own ends by having her portrait painted by Joshua Reynolds, the most prominent painter in England.
Her fame spread throughout Europe. When he visited London in 1763, the famous Italian lover 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.[note 2] 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.
It is unclear to what extent Casanova's account is to be trusted, as similar stories of a currency or bank-note sandwich were told about several other women who were Fisher's contemporaries. His insistence that Kitty spoke only English is contradicted by other sources. It is possible Casanova sought to link his name to Kitty's due to her celebrity.
Kitty maintained a famous rivalry with Maria Gunning, who had become Lady Coventry after a calculated insertion into the marriage market orchestrated by Gunning's mother. Kitty's rumored affair with Lord Coventry several years later sparked the rivalry.
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.
Kitty's retort to Lady Coventry shows her intentions to marry a Lord and thus ascend social class by means of marriage, in much the same way as Gunning herself. Kitty's cynical assessment of the gender politics of the day shows an awareness of the constraints on single women with a mind towards greater social mobility, but also serves as a condemnation of the Gunning girls for positioning themselves to marry wealthy, powerful men, merely for their own means and preservation. Wynne also wrote that:
- "She lives in the greatest possible splendor,[note 3] 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." [note 4]
Later life & death
The first artist known to have painted her was Joshua Reynolds. In addition to the portraits made famous through engraved prints that were marketed directly to the public, he did several other painting of Fisher that suggest a more intimate, private view. Some of these appear to be unfinished studies.
Nathaniel Hone painted her at least once in 1765, at the height of her popularity, and possibly a second time as well. 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.
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). Some sources say she settled into the proper role of mistress of Hemsted, building up Norris's fortune and enjoying the company of the local folk, who liked her for her generosity to the poor. Unfortunately, she died only four months after her marriage, some sources say from the effects of lead-based cosmetics (although this may be a confusion with the fate of her rival Lady Coventry), some from smallpox or consumption, in 1767. She was buried in Benenden churchyard dressed in her best ball gown.
- "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 II of Thompson's Compleat Collection of 200 Country Dances published in 1764. During her lifetime, numerous books and articles claiming to tell her lifestory were published, although these were spurious and make it difficult to separate biographical facts from the myth of Kitty Fisher. She was also included as a character in several eighteenth-century novels, including Chrysal by Charles Jonstone. Paulette Goddard played her in the 1945 blockbuster film Kitty, released by Paramount Pictures. A fictionalized version of Fisher appeared in the 1991 Channel Four historic musical fantasy Ghosts of Oxford Street, played by Kirsty MacColl.
- Harriette Wilson, a London courtesan during the Regency.
- 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".
- 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.
- In Carrington Street in fashionable Mayfair, according to DNB.
- Quoted in A Venetian Affair by Andrea di Robilant.
- Deacon, Michael (20 January 2012). "Kitty Fisher was the forerunner of modern celebrities". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 3 May 2015.
- "Fisher, Catherine Maria". Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.
- Pointon, Marcia (2004). "The Lives of Kitty Fisher" (PDF). Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies (27): 77–97. ISSN 0141-867X.
- Wind, Edgar (October 1938). "'Borrowed Attitudes' in Reynolds and Hogarth". Journal of the Warburg Institute 2 (2): 182–185.
- Casanova, Jacques (1894). The Memoirs of Jacques Casanova De Seingalt 5c (London ed.). Retrieved 3 May 2015.
- "Sir Andrew Bayntun Rolt (1755-1816)". Bayntun-history.com. 2015. Retrieved 3 May 2015.
- "Kitty Fisher by William Humphrys, after Sir Joshua Reynolds". National Portrait Gallery. 2015. Retrieved 3 May 2015.
- "Kitty Fisher by Samuel William Reynolds, after Sir Joshua Reynolds". National Portrait Gallery. 2015. Retrieved 3 May 2015.
- "Kitty Fisher by Richard Houston, after Sir Joshua Reynolds". National Portrait Gallery. 2015. Retrieved 3 May 2015.
- "Kitty Fisher by Nathaniel Hone". National Portrait Gallery. 2015. Retrieved 3 May 2015.
- "Joshua Reynolds: The creation of celebrity". Tate Gallery. 2015. Retrieved 3 May 2015.
- "Kitty Fisher by Richard Purcell (Charles or Philip Corbutt), after Sir Joshua Reynolds". National Portrait Gallery. 2015. Retrieved 3 May 2015.
- Titford-Mock, Fynn, ed. (2009). Thompson’s Compleat Collection of 200 Favourite Country Dances (PDF) II. p. 9. Retrieved 3 May 2015.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Knight, John Joseph (1889). "Fisher, Catherine Maria". In Stephen, Leslie. Dictionary of National Biography 19. London: Smith, Elder & Co. p. 53-54.