Married By Morning: A True Story

Elizabeth Gunning by Gavin Hamilton 1752-3, commission by Duke of Hamilton

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.

Elizabeth Gunning by Sir Joshua Reynolds

The Duchess of Argyll by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1760)

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11 thoughts on “Married By Morning: A True Story

  1. Fascinated by her relationship with the dog in the Hamilton painting.
    In her attitude toward the dog, the subtle head-scratch petting is delicately mixed with a vague, “down boy’ gesture. Sums up the ‘come-hither/take-thee-yonder’ quality of many paintings of women from that era.
    The shape of the lady, as with the hound, has a typically magesterial scale of body with an elongated neck topped with a pretty little head. It’s hard not to read into the ratio as a male interpretation of something. (I like long necks and I cannot lie… ?) While the Reynolds painting is warmer in color, I do like the Hamilton painting much more.

    I like the anecdote as well – all quality of fellows crashing against the rocks of eligible ladies.

    1. The duke must have still been bewitched by her when he commissioned the piece. The entire composition is very suggestive! I find that while my eye is drawn to the Reynolds painting first, the other painting is quietly superior.

  2. The Gunning sisters are truly interesting. It’s like an eighteenth-century Edith Wharton tale but with Mrs. Bennet scheming and involved in shenanigans to get her daughters married to wealthy men, isn’t it?

    1. Yes, they were goddesses for a while. I want to do another post on Maria. Her marriage occurred just after Elizabeth’s, when more than one individual commented their stars were beginning to fade. I imagine they left many jealous misses in their wake!

  3. My oh my – the gossip magazines and tv shows of today would have had a field day with this “instant romance”. And didn’t she end up doing well for herself. V.

  4. The Hamilton painting reminds me of the Dutch genre paintings of the previous century, with its careful but not overwhelming rendering of those wonderful silk gowns. But I find myself leaning to the Reynolds portrait – so warm and pale; the paleness reminding me of her unfortunate sister – who used arsenic to whiten her skin and died for her efforts. (I once saw this painting of Maria: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a0/Mary_Gunning%2C_Countess_of_Coventry.jpg and chose to write about her, years ago)

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