Friday, September 5, 2008

Tart of the Week: The Honourable Mary Graham



I might actually be doing an injustice to the Beautiful Mrs Graham by honoring her with being the tart of the week because she was a really sweet little thing. But she is interesting and an extraordinary woman of the times so she is worth writing about. Plus, she did have an affair...with a woman (you may never guess who!) so that makes her tart enough for me!

Mary Cathcart was born to the 9th Earl of Cathcart who just happened to be the ambassador to Catherine the Great in Russia. This meant Mary enjoyed her upbringing with her brothers and sisters in the fashionable country. When she returned to England she was immediately married off to Thomas Graham at the age of 17. Thomas was not a peer but he was distinguished and owned a lot of land. He wasn't the brightest man but he dearly loved Mary. There is a story that when she forgot her jewelery box for a ball Thomas immediately jumped on his horse and raced 90 miles and back to fetch it for her. Indeed, she was beautiful and gentle and many found it hard not to like her which may have earned her the nickname The Beautiful Mrs. Graham.

One of the people to fall under her charms was Thomas Gainsborough. He found her beauty to be exotic and could not help to paint her as much as possible, even if she wasn't there. It is very likely he was head over heels for her. Unfortunately the much-loved Mrs. Graham was very sick. She had tuberculosis which caused her to be very frail. She withered away to a modern dress-size 8 (around size 6, US) which in 18th century terms was emaciated. It also caused her to have sunken eyes and a large upper lip. Indeed, Georgians did not find this attractive at all but she won them over with kind disposition. The disease was crippling for Mary, and while her famous Gainsborough portrait was painted she could only sit for small periods at a time. In fact, she was not even wearing the glamorous masquerade gown, that is all a figment of Gainsborough's imagination and a testament to his skills with the brush. Mary may have never even seen the painting but when her family did they found it to be obscene. Despite this, it was displayed at the Royal Academy in 1777 to great acclaim.

Meanwhile, Mary and Thomas were in Brighton, hoping the sea-air would cure her pneumonia. It was here that the couple ran into another famous couple. It was none other than the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. The two ladies immediately latched on to each other. They were the same age and had married in the same year too. They quickly became best friends and unlike Georgiana's future best-friendship with Bess, this one was more healthy. Mary was naturally motherly and led a much more subdued life than Georgiana. This balanced Georgiana out a bit and slowed her down. Unfortunately, the two friends had to part Brighton and were forced to reduce their relationship to daily correspondence. It is here that a change can be noticed between the two friends. In fact, Mary and Georgiana became more than friends. Georgiana found in Mary, someone who really loved her, a feeling foreign to her in her marriage. Georgiana was "the love of her life" according to Mary's biographer, Sarah Symmons.

When Mary's health did not improved, she was forced further from her beloved in search of warmer climates. The two women were devastated but Georgiana soon got swept up in her party lifestyle. The were not to meet again until 1792 in Nice while Mary was in the final stage of consumption. She died shortly afterward. In her dying breaths she spoke of her love and friendship with Georgiana. But her sad story does not end there. Since she died on a boat in French waters Thomas hired a barge to take her body to a plot in Bordeaux to be buried. On it's way there her casket was desecrated by french soldiers and her remains molested. Thomas closed the casket and then brought it to the Scottish Highlands where it rests in a mausoleum today.

Upon Mary's death, her famous Gainsborough portrait was covered with white muslin for Thomas could not bare to look at it. He was deeply grieved by his wife's passing. He reacted to her death by joining the army (can we say mid-life crisis?) and became the oldest general in the British army. The years passed and the portrait remained hidden until it was rediscovered in 1857. It was then bequeathed to the National Gallery of Scotland on the condition that it would never leave the museum's walls and there it stays today. For Mary's health took her away from her countrymen and those who loved her but her portrait is not allowed to do so.

16 comments:

  1. What a perfectly beautiful girl! I do not believe that I have seen any prettier. Peculiar to me that you think her a tart for having loved and found someone who loved her in return. Well, she was married to a man who obviously adored her, so I suppose...

    Such is our way in the 18th century. Marriage is not at all to us what it is to you modern people.

    But by God she is fetching -- my heart is fairly palpitating!

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  2. I find it really frustrating how so many of Georgiana's letters had huge sections blacked out by embarrassed descendents...from what I've understood, it's strongly implied that there was a romantic relationship with them, but there's no proof b/c of those inked out spots. Correct me if I'm wrong?

    Poor Mary. She was such a better friend for Georgiana than that trashy Bess

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  3. And size six considered unattractive! Hehe...and here we have Keira, portraying Georgiana as a size 2! Though I do love her as an actress.

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  4. She is a sad excuse for a tart, I just needed an excuse to write about her. But she is truly gorgeous, especially to our modern eye.

    And yes, Kira I do think the message behind her letters, both blacked out and not, is that there was a romantic relationship between the two ladies. I enjoyed how Foreman explained it in the biography. Dr. Symmons was one of my professors, and she felt strongly about the relationship, so as far as I'm concerned whatever she says is as good as gold.

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  5. finally a mary post! Heather I have been waiting on this one.

    You know how songs and scents can bring you back to a different time...like give you that nostalgic feeling?
    Well when I see this painting (the first one, full length) I immediately think of Scotland! HA and even tho it was dead that weekend, it was still fun and just lovely...

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  6. I don't blame Thomas for covering Ms. Graham's portrait. Gainsborough's best works are so evocative. One expects them to start conversing.
    Gainsborough often used brushes several feet long for the roughing work, so that he could see the canvas and the sitter in the same view. This may explain the aforementioned quality.

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  7. What an interesting site! I am about to read A. Foreman's biography about the Duchess which is absolutely fascinating. I wonder though, trying to find the biography about Mary Graham by Symmons but it is nowhere to be found, - can you help me?

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  8. I am so sorry, I am afraid I have been misleading! Dr Symmons is currently in the process of creating the biography. I was fortunate enough to get info about her research when she was my adviser in grad school. Although I do not know when a book could be released she has a some info on her site which can be found here

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  9. What a fascinating site! I came across it looking for Mary Graham, I bear a striking resemblance to her.It was first picked up by my mother during an art history lecture! My family is originally from Scotland, so there may be some Cathcart connection - I really do look an awful lot like her.

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  10. I have to dispute your assertion that Mary's husband "wasn't too bright". He was an outstanding officer during the Peninsular Campaign and Wellington's choice to replace one of his generals in Spain. This is a description of him. "He, Graham, was not only a more than competent linguist; he had already proved that he had the rare gift of adapting his own attitudes to those with other cultural and political traditions.
    You can do no better than refer to the opinion of Oman, who described the 62-year-old Scotsman as possessed of:
    “indomitable resolution, swift decision, a good eye for topography, the power of inspiring enthusiastic confidence in his troops.”
    “He was no mere professional soldier, but a crusader with a mission.”

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  11. You are quite right. At the time I had written this I had only heard negative things about him which formed my opinion. It has since changed! Apologies for my fickleness!

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  12. mary graham is a desendant of my family she was very pretty .my family are from the grahams of scottland who served along side william wallace,robert the bruse

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  13. Does anyone know why Mrs Graham isn't wearing a wedding ring? The portrait was painted a year after her marriage to Thomas Graham, and intended to celebrate it. I would be interested to read your comments!

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  14. Why do you think that Mrs Graham isn't wearing a wedding ring in her portrait by Gainsborough? It was painted a year after her wedding to Thomas Graham, and intended to celebrate it. I would be really interested to read your thoughts!

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  15. That's a very good question. I am not sure how common a practice wedding rings were at the time. I will have to look into it now!

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  16. Its does not have an apostrophe unless it means 'it is' and bare means
    naked, you mean 'bear' NO WAY WAS SHE A TART, that implies she was sexually lax.

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