Portrait of Duchess of Hamilton by Gavin Hamilton (1752-53) Commissioned by the Duke of Hamilton
He first sees her at an Opera House masquerade. She is the shy Gunning sister, demure compared with the spirited and more beautiful Maria, but the Duke of Hamilton is fascinated. Spurned by his former fiancée Elizabeth Chudleigh eight years prior, the bachelor Hamilton is freshly returned from his second continental tour. He sets foot in London when the Irish Miss Gunnings are the toast of town. They are 17 and 18, heralded as THE diamonds of 1752 despite hailing from an impoverished gentry, and soon the Duke of Hamilton will make one of them his duchess.
On the night of February 24, 1752 the dissolute gambler and drunkard, who is known to begin drinking anew as soon as his hangover diminishes, is hours away from the altar. Gossip would later say he acted upon a wager during a binge, but either way, the result is the same.
At a ball thrown by Lord Chesterfield to celebrate his sparkling new Grosvenor residence on South Audley Street, the duke sets his sights on Elizabeth Gunning. She is dressed in a simple Quaker’s gown and no sooner is his proposal aired than they are spirited away to Mr. Keith’s Chapel, the so-called “Gretna Green of Mayfair.” The hour is midnight, and with one of the chaplains awakened, the ceremony on Curzon Street commences. A curtain ring, you must know, is used in place of a jewel.
By earliest morning your graces are married and proceed immediately to the Hamilton seat of Sunburn in Hampshire for their honeymoon. By the middle of March, the new duchess is presented at Court and come March 30th, they depart for Scotland before a crowd gathered outside Hamilton’s townhouse on St. George Street. The duke, who proves a much better suitor than a husband, dies six years later and the ever successful Elizabeth goes on to bag a second duke, the Duke of Argyll.
The Duchess of Argyll by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1760)