Friday, August 15, 2008

Tart of the Week: Kitty Fisher

The most notorious English courtesan of the 18th century would undoubtedly be Kitty Fisher. Catherine Maria Fisher's early life remains a mystery; and like any classy lady, so does her year of birth. She did get her start as a milliner but the life of classy prostitute was just too tempting. She took a pride in her work and she did it well. When the famous lover Giacomo Casanova came to England he was "fortunate" enough to meet Kitty,
...the illustrious Kitty Fisher, who was just beginning to be fashionable. 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. I did not care to do so, however, for, though charming, she could only speak English, and I liked to have all my senses, including that of hearing, gratified.
You could say Kitty had an appetite for the finer things in life. Literally. Once she had eaten a thousand-pound banknote on her bread and butter. Yes, Miss Fisher was at the forefront of celebrity in 18th century Europe. Like her French counterpart, Madame de Pompadour, Kitty was admired despite her unwholesome career and attracted a lot of press. Of course to get to the status of a high class prostitute, courtesans like Kitty had to do their own PR in the form publishing pamphlets to advertise their wares. Kitty F--r's Merry Thoughts seemed to imply that not only would you get a lot of bang for your buck (sorry couldn't resist that one!) but some clever and witty conversation as well. No wonder Casanova refused her on the basis of her only knowing English!

Fisher gained a lot of attention one day while in St James' Park. She was riding her horse when it reared and threw her to the ground. The courtesan was not hurt but her dignity was. When she fell, her skirts flew up revealing more than she intended too. At first she began to cry but then remembered herself and began laughing and called on a sedan chair to escort her out. Witnesses were dumbfounded, the press had a field-day. Songs, articles, and satirical prints recorded this accident, but was it an accident or a clever publicity stunt? It didn't hurt Kitty's career at all.

Another classic song that Kitty was immortalized in was the nursery-rhyme, Lucy's Locket which is sung to the tune of Yankee Doodle:
Lucy Locket lost her pocket,
Kitty Fisher found it;
Not a penny was there in it,
Only ribbon 'round it.
Lucy Locket was a barmaid who didn't really loose her pocket but disregarded her lover after he spent all his money on her (Locket was also slang for vagina). However prostitutes were known to tie their pockets round their thighs with ribbon. Kitty wasn't only stealing away Lucy's lovers. She notorious stole Maria Lady Coventry's husband and the two had a nasty public rivalry.

Perhaps Kitty is most remembered for her her lovely portraits painted by Joshua Reynolds, among others. She was Reynolds' favorite model, just as Emma Hamilton was for Romney. In his portrait of her as Cleopatra, she is depicted dissolving a pearl in wine. Given her taste for riches (buttered guineas in fact) this portrait seems a fairly accurate depiction. The portrait he did of her holding a letter and confronting the viewers became a very popular print, released several times by different printers.

She eventually settled down in 1766 with an MP whom she married and gave up her profession. She settled down and enjoyed being the mistress of the fine Hamsted house, and was noted for being generous to the poor. Four months after her marriage she died suddenly and as was requested, buried in her finest ball gown.


  1. If one looks closely at the portraits of the most famous Georgian beauties, like this Kitty, Georgiana, Emma Hamilton, Elizabeth Sheridan et al., it seems like they are not wildly attractive in a physical way.

    I don't think this is just a different idea of beauty, a different cultural ideal, because these ladies' comtemporaries said the same thing.

    Maybe before TV and movies, people relied more on face-to-face. And in that venue inner beauty shines much more brightly.

  2. I just realized the funny symbolism in Reynold's (I think?) portrait of her with the kitten reaching for the fishes...

  3. Yeah isn't it great! This one is my favorite of her and it's actual Nathanial Hone.

  4. Oh, thank you! I wasn't quite sure.. :D

  5. Yeah of course, you can never be too sure!

  6. Hamsted House is now the HQ for Benenden, Britain's poshest girls' school. Great to know Kitty got there first!

  7. Do you have a source for the claim about the song Lucy Locket actually being about this woman?