Maria Coventry, Countess of Coventry

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The Countess of Coventry, after Francis Cotes

Maria Coventry, Countess of Coventry (née Gunn; 1733 – 30 September 1760) was a famous Irish beauty and London society hostess during the reign of King George II. She died at a young age from lead and mercury poisoning, killed by the toxins used in her beauty regimen.[1]


The Countess of Coventry.

She was born in Hemingford Grey, Huntingdonshire and was the eldest child of John Gunning of Castle Coote, County Roscommon and his wife Hon. Bridget Bourke, daughter of Theobald Bourke, 6th Viscount Mayo (1681–1741). Maria's younger siblings were Elizabeth Gunning, Duchess of Hamilton and Argyll, Catherine (married Robert Travis, died 1773), Sophia, Lizzie, and John (a general in the army).[2] Although her beginnings were humble, Maria Gunning would go on to become one of the most celebrated beauties of her day.

In late 1740 or early 1741, the Gunning family returned to John Gunning's ancestral home in Ireland, where they divided their time between their home in Roscommon, and a rented house in Dublin. According to some sources, when Maria and her sister Elizabeth came of age, their mother urged them to take up acting in order to earn a living, owing to the family's relative poverty. The sources further state that the Gunning sisters worked for some time in the Dublin theatres, befriending actors like Peg Woffington, even though acting was not considered a respectable profession as many actresses of that time doubled as courtesans to wealthy benefactors. However, other sources deny this and point out that Margaret Woffington did not arrive in Dublin until May 1751, by which time Maria and her sister Elizabeth were in England.

Portrait of a pensive woman on a sofa, a 1749 painting of Mary Gunning in Turkish costume by Jean-Étienne Liotard
In the park Lady Coventry asked Kitty Fisher for "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.
Kitty replied that she ... "would have to accept this insult because Maria was socially superior since marrying Lord Coventry, but she was going to marry a Lord herself just to be able to answer back."

Giustiniana Wynne, visiting London at the time.[3]

In October 1748, a ball was held at Dublin Castle by the Viscountess Petersham. The two sisters did not have any dresses for the gathering until Tom Sheridan, the manager of one of the local theatres, supplied them with two costumes from the green room, those of Lady Macbeth and Juliet. Wearing the costumes, they were presented to the Earl of Harrington, the then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Harrington must have been pleased by the meeting as, by 1750, Bridget Gunning had persuaded him to grant her a pension, which she then used to transport herself, Maria, and Elizabeth, back to their original home in Huntingdon, England. With their attendance at local balls and parties, the beauty of the two girls was much remarked upon. They became well-known celebrities, their fame reaching all the way to London, and themselves following soon afterward. On 2 December 1750, they were presented at the court of St James. By this time, they were sufficiently famous that the presentation was noted in the London newspapers. Maria, who was notoriously tactless, was reported to have made a notable gaffe by telling the elderly George II that the spectacle she would most like to see was a royal funeral. Fortunately, the King was highly amused. He could not have known then that his son, Frederick, Prince of Wales, with whom he had a conflictual relationship, was to die on 31 March 1751 of a burst abscess in his lung.

Within a year, her sister Elizabeth had married the Duke of Hamilton. In March 1752, Maria married the 6th Earl of Coventry and became the Countess of Coventry. For their honeymoon, the Earl and Countess traveled around Europe accompanied by Lady Petersham, but neither lady enjoyed it much, especially Maria who particularly disliked Paris. The Countess's ignorance of the French language and her husband's decision not to allow her to wear red powder as make-up (which was fashionable in Paris at the time) intensified her dislike of the city and the trip. On one occasion, her husband saw her arrive at dinner with powder on her face and tried to rub it off with his handkerchief. Her tactlessness, which had amused George II, struck the French Court as simple bad manners.

Maria's popularity and beauty was such, that on her return to London, she was mobbed when she appeared in Hyde Park and was eventually given a guard by the King, led by the Earl of Pembroke. Her husband became involved with then famous courtesan Kitty Fisher, which caused Maria much distress.

Maria, also, became involved in at least one affair. She was rumoured to have been involved romantically with the 3rd Duke of Grafton, but this was never confirmed beyond doubt.[4]


Her early death (at the age of 27) was caused by lead poisoning from the make-up she wore which was very stylish at the time. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, it was fashionable for ladies to have pale white skin and red rouged cheeks and use lead-based Venetian ceruse as a basis for their make-up. It was the noxious effects of lead which caused skin eruptions (which also encouraged ladies to powder their skins more vigorously to mask their blemishes) and eventually blood poisoning which killed Maria on 30 September 1760. Originally known simply as a beautiful but vain woman, she eventually became known in society circles as a "victim of cosmetics".[5]


  1. ^ Oliver, Amy (29 May 2012). "Vanity mirror used by tragic 18th century society beauty, 27, who died of make-up poisoning sells for £300,000". The Daily Mail. Retrieved 23 July 2017. 
  2. ^ Mosley, Charles, ed. (2003). Burke's Peerage, Baronetage & Knighthood (107 ed.). Burke's Peerage & Gentry. p. 929. ISBN 0-9711966-2-1. 
  3. ^ Baytun History, Sir Andrew Baytun Rolt
  4. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 11 March 2007. Retrieved 2006-05-16. 
  5. ^ Brooks, John. "Maria Gunning, Countess of Coventry". Retrieved 17 April 2018. 

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