Maria Coventry, Countess of Coventry
She was born Maria Gunning in Hemingford Grey, Huntingdonshire and was the eldest child of John Gunning of Castlecoote, County Roscommon and his wife Hon. Bridget Bourke, daughter of Theobald Bourke (1681–1741), 6th Viscount Mayo. Maria's younger siblings were Elizabeth, Catherine (married Robert Travis, died 1773), Sophia, Lizzie, and John (a general in the army). 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.
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.
She continued to utilize heavy make-up, simply because it was stylish. Had she paid heed to her husband's actions against her wearing lead-based make-up in Paris for the rest of her days, her death eight years later (at the age of 27) might not have been so early. However, throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, it was fashionable for ladies to have pale white skin and red rouged cheeks and use lead as a basis for their make-up. It was the noxious effects of the 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".