Friday, March 13, 2009

Tart of the Week: Penelope Viscountess Ligonier

Penelope Pitt came from a typical family of good standing. Her father was a politician and future 1st Baron Rivers and her mother was a classy lady from Strasbourg. Penelope was smart, beautiful, and had a natural musical talent. Like many women born into aristocracy, Penelope was still a teenager when she got married. Lord Edward Ligonier was the lucky guy. In celebration of the marriage, Penelope's husband commissioned twin full-length portraits of the new Lord and Lady Ligonier by Gainsborough. Unfortunately, Penelope and her family didn't realize until later that Edward was not too smart and not toofantastic a catch. He also turned out to be more interested in his horses than he was with his cute wife.

Still, the couple put up the charade of the typical married aristocrats. They entertained many of their foreign friends at their home, Cobham Park. One of their visitors was Count Vittorio Alfieri, an Italian who would later become known as the founder of Italian tragedy. Penelope was quite taken with the dramatist, who found the affair with a married woman quite exhilarating. He later would write about it with embellished flair. When the amour came to light, Edward was furious that his sassy wife made a cuckold of him for all to see. Instead of taking the usual route of pressing a crim con suit against Alfieri, Edward, in a show of brute masculinity challenged him to a duel. Edward, who was a soldier, managed to wound Alfieri but not kill him. He then decided to focus his anger on his unfaithful wife and promptly divorced her. Penelope was in a panic over her future. She had hopes that her lover would marry her to save her from ruin but Alfieri would do no such thing. His excuse: she had been sleeping with her servant for quite a while. Yet, this most gallant of gentlemen still did her the honour of accompanying her to France until the scandal died down.

She returned to England and to social ostracism a few months later. With a small annuity she quietly tucked herself away to a more humble living. Every once in a while she would appear on the London scene with other divorcee friends. Perhaps this was to find other lovers who would be willing to care for her. But before you shed a tear for Penelope's plight there is something you should know. She never regretted it for a second. Years later she would go on to say she entered into the affair knowing the full effect it would have, and almost looking forward to the outcome. Penelope saw an illicit relationship as her means to exit out of one that was making her miserable. Whatever the outcome, it had to be better than her marriage.

Her ex would go on to marry again a couple of years later. It was another thirteen before Penelope would find another man she was willing to marry, a Captain Smith. She happily lived out the rest of her days with him and out of public scrutiny.


  1. Thanks for posting! I was hoping you'd get to her one day. I just visited her portrait last month and it always interests me how different hers is compared to her husband's. They still hang together (don'tcha love it?), but those darned museum write ups never tell you much with portraits, unless the sitter is very famous.

    Her picture seems to be so much sharper than his and even her face has a lot more intelligence. He really looks like a dullard. (You can find his picture at the Huntington Library site. He may be in uniform, but he's no Colonel Coussmaker.)

    PS I don't know where to post it, but the Huntington portrait of Georgiana made it on to the new audio tour system and her written caption is much fuller. It's about time! (Even though it's only on the children's audio commentary, is rather patronizing and only mentions her partying and wearing a 'classical drapery' for the portrait that she thought was improper. Give me a break!)

    End rant.

  2. This is really a lovely portrait. think that she was able to see( or foresee)the positve outcome in all of it!
    Heather, I'm so glad you're back with these terrific posts:)

  3. Thanks gals!!

    She thought it was improper?? That is something I wasn't aware of and now very curious about...

  4. What a fantastic portrait!! I love how she looks like she knows something everyone else doesn't.

    Glad you're back!

  5. I love the portrait! Was she by any chance related to the Earl of Chatham, Diamond Jack Pitt et all?

  6. Intriguing, it's hard to find information on this couple and I get the feeling there's an even more interesting back story. No children, right? Right out of the cautionary Georgette Heyer style that doesn't seem to reflect reality. Her lover drops her after her husband leaves because she was so dishonorable as to sleep around.

    And the Earl was illegitimate yet inherited his uncle's title only in Ireland, not in Britain. For someone baring the "mark" of illegitimate birth, he seems to have done very well but was a little rigid...fights a duel over his wife and then divorces her.

    By the way, I'm no fan Gainsborough, but this is a lovely portrait.


  7. Heather,

    Actually, I took the whole audio tour with a whole salt cellar. It said G was the Paris Hilton of the 18th century, said all she ever did was party, and then said she thought the drapery was improper? can you imagine the Paris Hilton of 1775 finding that outfit improper?

    Of course, it was geared towards kids, but the whole tone really grated. (I'm sure you can't tell :)

    I expected more from the renovated and improved Huntington. However, it was amazing in every other aspect, so I guess I should just get over it. Riiiiightttt.

  8. Heather and Polonaise: This is off topic but since Polonaise has seen the re-installation at the Huntington could you have her post a review of it? If she already did and I missed apologies. I visited 2 years ago to do research at the library and to see the wondrous Constable exhibit and found the whole place much improved. At that time the original gallery was closed for its renovation.

  9. @Elyse
    I'm not quite sure actually. I might have to investigate that further!

    Yes, its a very interesting story with many contradicting facts crowned with a gorgeous portrait. Another scandalous lady deserving of a biography to set the record straight!

    *Dies at the comparison to Paris Hilton* That's exactly what I was thinking, the two facts don't seem to add up!

    That is a fabulous idea, especially since I am west-coast challenged. I am confident that if Polonaise is interested she'll be able to give us all the juicy details!

  10. I'm noticing a theme... It pays to be a tart!

    Polonaise, I looked all over the Huntington site (the correct Huntington site this time!)but couldn't find his portrait. What page is it on?

  11. Hi Eliza,

    Here's the page he's on. Also, if you get the time, check out the portrait of Penelope Acton. Hers is my favorite Huntington portrait---aside from Georgiana of course :)

  12. Penelope was stunning and daring! I like her story. Unlike many, she wasn't paralyzed by convention when really put to the test.
    I can't believe they used the Paris Hilton analogy. Puh-lease.

  13. I just found my postcard of Penelope, Viscountess Ligonier that I bought at least 15 years ago after a second visit to the Huntington, just to see her portrait again! I brought two friends with me who did not see why I was so entranced by these portraits. At the time, she was on the left of a major entrance and he was on the right. I though it obvious she had a touch of life in her and he is so obviously a pompous dullard. All this from Gainsborough! As soon as I found my postcard I went searching and want to thank you all for the information I have longed for for many years! Cat B.

  14. That is so cool! I'm so happy your search landed you in my humble little corner of the internet.