Contributed from Petworth House & Park
A YOUNG woman gazes directly at the viewer from a wall in the Red Room at Petworth House. Wearing an exquisite silk dress with flounced lace sleeves, with a black lace mantilla draped over her shoulders, her hair and ears are adorned by pearls – one of the most valuable jewels of the time, as well as a symbol of femininity and purity. Around her neck is a four strand pearl necklace. In this portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-92), painted in 1759, the sitter seems the epitome of a fashionable and well-to-do young woman.
However, this is no conventional English lady but the famous courtesan, Catherine Maria (‘Kitty’) Fisher, born in c.1741. According to a contemporary, the Rev. John Mitford, her parentage was ‘low and mean’, and she started work in a milliner’s shop. Kitty, though, decided there was more to life and by using her beauty, wit and charm entered into the fringes of London society, firstly through Ensign and later Lieutenant-General, Anthony George Martin. Here she enjoyed a rapid rise thanks to a series of well-to-do, wealthy lovers and her capacity for self-publicity. For just as today’s celebrities use modern media to cultivate their image, Kitty managed to attain celebrity status by collaborating with artists and writers, bringing her image the attention of the public and promoting her reputation.
As well as being beautiful and witty, Kitty was also a daring horsewoman. On one occasion in March 1759, while riding in St. James’s Park, she was thrown from her horse and landed on the ground in such a way that her skirts billowed up. Initially embarrassed and tearful, Kitty regained her composure and called for a sedan chair to take her home. This incident inspired a flurry of songs, verses, pictures, pamphlets and entire books. One cartoon, The merry accident, or a print in the morning. A chair, a chair, for the lady. Who rides fastest, Miss Kitty Fisher, or her gay gallant shows Kitty reclining elegantly on the ground surrounded by a posse of well-dressed men. Was this an accident which Kitty turned to her advantage or a carefully choreographed publicity stunt?
Kitty’s fame spread, Giacomo Casanova, the famous Italian lover, wrote : ‘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’. Casanova declined on the grounds that Kitty did not speak French! He was not the only one to comment on Kitty’s wealth. Giustiniana Wynne wrote: ‘She lives in the greatest possible splendor, 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’. The nursery rhyme Lucy Locket lost her pocket, Kitty Fisher found it; Not a penny was there in it, Only ribbon round it shows the contrast between the fortunes of Kitty and her rival Lucy, a barmaid at a Fleet Street Tavern. As one meaning of ‘pocket’ was a pouch or a small bag the implication is that Lucy Lockett made very little money, but a more sexual connotation suggests that Kitty had stolen one of Lucy’s lovers.
Artists were fascinated by Kitty as they knew her portraits would attract crowds to their works, and she in turn understood the way that exhibitions could enhance her public profile. Her portraits were reproduced as cheap prints, often small enough to be carried inside a gentleman’s snuff-box or pocket watch, and sold in their thousands. She was Joshua Reynolds’s favourite model and he painted at least four portraits of her between 1759 and 1766, prompting rumours that they too were lovers In Cleopatra Dissolving the Pearl (c.1759, Kenwood, Iveagh Bequest), he depicts a very sensuous Kitty as Cleopatra suspending a large pearl over a goblet of wine before drinking it. In a similar vein, stories of Kitty’s extravagance claimed that she had eaten a £20 banknote (about £20,000 today) between two slices of bread and butter to show her disdain for such a paltry sum. Kitty Fisher and Parrot painted in c.1763-64 (Bowood) depicts her in a more relaxed and intimate fashion. Seated in a high-backed blue velvet chair, wearing a yellow and white silk dress, open at the throat, Kitty gazes at Reynolds’s parrot perched on the index finger of her right hand. Among the other artists who helped disseminate Kitty’s image was Nathaniel Hone, whose most famous portrait of Kitty, dating from 1765, shows her with a kitten (‘kitty’), which is trying to get at a goldfish in a bowl (‘fisher’).
Celebrity, wealth and her rapid rise through the echelons of London society earned Kitty the prize of a good marriage. In 1766, she married John Norris (1740-1811), M.P. for Rye. At her husband’s family house, Hempsted in the village of Benenden in Kent (now the premises of Benenden School), she devoted herself to building up her husband’s dilapidated fortunes and became a well-regarded member of local society for her philanthropic efforts and generosity to the poor. Sadly Kitty did not enjoy her new-found status for long –only four months after her marriage she died in March 1767 aged around 26, possibly from either the effects of lead-based cosmetics or from smallpox or consumption. Flamboyant to the end, Kitty’s last wish was to be buried in her best ball gown and she lies in Benenden Churchyard.