Female Abt 1732 - 1760  (~ 27 years)

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  • Name Maria GUNNING  [1
    Born Abt Aug 1732  [2
    Gender Female 
    • Portrait miniature of Maria Gunning, Countess of Coventry by Gervese Spencer, in enamel on gold, signed and dated 1754 on the counter-enamel.
      This portrait is after the pastel by Jean Etienne Liotard, probably taken the same year. Maria Gunning, Countess of Coventry (1733-1760) was the elder of the Gunning Sisters, the most celebrated beauties of their day. Called by Lady Montague 'those goddesses, the Gunnings,' they were the daughters of an impoverished Irish landowner. In 1751, Maria and her sister Elizabeth left Dublin for London instantly causing a sensation in society. Within the year, Elizabeth had married the Duke of Hamilton and Maria had become the wife of George William Coventry, 6th Earl of Coventry (1722-1809). The Coventrys quickly had three children, but the Earl was a scoundrel, very publicly keeping as his mistress the actress Kitty Fisher. It is rumored that Maria's affections also wandered, her beauty catching the eye of Prime Minister and notorious playboy, Augustus Henry FitzRoy, 3rd Duke of Grafton, in whose family this miniature descended. Sadly, Maria's magnificent face was also her demise. The greatest beauty of her time was poisoned at the age of 27 by the lead and arsenic in her cosmetics.
      Set in the original gold pendant frame, which retains the hinged red leather case. Within the case are two letters, one dated 1805 from the 3rd Duke of Grafton, bequeathing the portrait to his daughter, Elizabeth FitzRoy, and the second from Elizabeth, dated 1832, giving the miniature to her daughter-in-law.

      Maria Coventry, Countess of Coventry (1733 - September 30, 1760) was a famous London beauty and society hostess during the reign of King George II of Great Britain. Born Maria Gunning, she was born in Hemingford Grey, Cambridgeshire, the daughter of John Gunning of Castle Coote and his wife, Bridget (a daughter of the 6th Viscount Mayo) and the elder sister of Elizabeth Gunning. The family was relatively poor and when the two sisters came of age, their mother urged them to take up acting to earn a living. They then travelled to Dublin, were befriended by Peg Woffington and worked for some time in the city's theatres. For women, the stage was not yet a stepping-stone to becoming the wife of a noble and so the girls were encouraged to attend social events to attract potential suitors. One such event was held at Dublin Castle by the Viscountess Petersham. However, the two sisters did not have any dresses for the gathering until Tom Sheridan, manager of one of the theatres the young women had acted in, supplied two costumes from the green room, namely Lady Macbeth and Juliet, and they were presented to the Earl of Harrington, the then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. The two sisters then travelled to London in 1751 from Ireland and starred in many West End shows and at New Spring Gardens, as well as being presented at the Royal Court. In both environments, crowds and courtiers would clamber to see both sisters and they became celebrities within months. In March Maria married the 6th Earl of Coventry and became the Countess of Coventry. For their honeymoon, the Earl and Countess travelled around Europe accompanied by Lady Petersham but neither ladies 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 makeup (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. 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. Had she paid heed to her husband's actions in Paris for the rest of her days, her death eight years later (at the age of 27) may not have been so untimely. However, throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, it was fashionable for ladies to have pale white skins and red rouged cheeks and use lead as a basis for their makeup. 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 September 30, 1760.
    SW Group
    UKC 1881
    Alternate Name Maria Coventry 
    Reference Number 745 
    Died 1760 
    Person ID I7762  Southwest
    Last Modified 23 Mar 2015 

    Family George William COVENTRY, 6th Earl Of Coventry,   b. 26 Apr 1722,   d. 3 Sep 1809  (Age 87 years) 
    Married Mar 1752 
     1. Lady Lady Mary Alicia COVENTRY,   b. 9 Dec 1754,   d. 8 Jan 1784  (Age 29 years)
     2. Lady Lady Anne Margaret COVENTRY,   b. Est 1755
     3. George William COVENTRY, 7th Earl Of Coventry,   b. 28 Apr 1758,   d. 26 Mar 1831  (Age 72 years)
    Family ID F2451  Group Sheet  |  Family Chart

  • Sources 
    1. [S1882] Gedcom Coventry, Caroline, M10H944S499.

    2. [S1881] Web site,, Coventry family, Lundy, Darryl, (, 1881.