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Death by make-up for a look worth thousands

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Fantasy art: Loftus Howe’s painting of Maria Gunning is estimated to fetch between €8,000 and €10,000 at Sheppard’s auction later this month

Fantasy art: Loftus Howe’s painting of Maria Gunning is estimated to fetch between €8,000 and €10,000 at Sheppard’s auction later this month

Fantasy art: Loftus Howe’s painting of Maria Gunning is estimated to fetch between €8,000 and €10,000 at Sheppard’s auction later this month

Maria Gunning was a victim of 18th century celebrity culture, a country girl from Roscommon who was thrust into high society without the tools to survive it. Her beauty was iconic. She became a countess, feted, exploited and over-exposed. By the age of 27, she was dead, poisoned by the toxic cosmetics she used to keep pace with a world she did not understand.

She had the reputation of silliness, propagated by the society gossips that were the 18th century version of internet trolls. Gunning certainly made poor choices, but her portrait was painted by the most fashionable artists of the day and none of them portray her as a silly woman. She looks graceful, inquisitive and alert.

Her most famous portrait, Lady On A Sofa, by the Swiss artist Jean-Etienne Liotard is now in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. This likeness, and others by Joshua Reynolds and Francis Cotes, gave rise to many mezzotint prints. People used to rent them out for dinner parties. "Do you remember the way that we used to rent DVDs?" asks Philip Sheppard, auctioneer.

"In the 18th century, you could rent prints, and engravings of Maria Gunning and her sister Elizabeth were incredibly popular."

If you wanted your party to appear really exotic, you could also rent a pineapple.

A portrait of Gunning, painted in oils by Loftus Howe, is coming up for auction at Sheppard's on September 22 and 23 (est €8,000 to €10,000). "It's a superb painting with an exceptional story behind it," Sheppard says. The painting is a portrait a la turque, a type of Oriental fantasy art that became popular in the 1740s. Maria came from Castlecoote House which, rumour had it, her father had won at cards. According to the historian Turtle Bunbury, he was a gambling man, riddled with debt and obliged to "retire into the country, to avoid the disagreeable consequences that must ensue". Here, he sunk into morose self-pity while his wife, the redoubtable Brigid Gunning, set off for Dublin to trade upon her daughters' beauty.

They swept into high society like Cinderella. On the grounds of not much other than their looks, they were invited to a ball at Dublin Castle, but had nothing suitable to wear.

They borrowed costumes from the Theatre Royal and were presented to the Viceroy dressed as Lady Macbeth and Juliet.

The Viceroy, Lord Harrington, then gave Brigid Gunning a substantial pension that enabled her to bring her daughters to London.

How exactly she managed to engineer this, and what the deal involved, has been lost in time.

The Gunning girls took London by storm. In 1750, they were presented to King George II, who asked them what they'd like to see in London. Maria, who lacked tact, said she'd like to see a coronation (the king would have to die for this to happen). Luckily, he saw the funny side of this.

They married quickly and advantageously. Elizabeth became the Duchess of Hamilton and Maria the Countess of Coventry.

Celebrity culture took over their lives. When she was mobbed by crowds, the king offered Maria a guard of soldiers.

"She then paraded in the park, accompanied by her husband and Lord Pembroke, preceded by two sergeants, and followed by 12 soldiers," wrote Thomas Willing in Some Old Time Beauties (1895).

An enterprising shoemaker earned two guineas and a half by exhibiting shoes he had made for the countess at a penny a head.

In the midst of her triumph, Maria was all at sea. The Gunning sisters had not been educated for high society (although Elizabeth was more level-headed than her sister). They were country girls, neither refined in manner nor politically informed, and did not have the social skills to negotiate the viper-pit of Georgian London.

They did not speak French. They lacked wit for repartee.

In Paris on honeymoon, Maria adopted the fashionable habit of using a foundation cream based on white-lead, combined with rouge. When her skin reacted, she applied more make-up. She died, in 1760, of lead poisoning and consumption. Ten thousand people came to view her coffin. It was the Georgian equivalent of reality TV.

See sheppards.ie

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