Home » art » Two Long-Stemmed English Roses

Two Long-Stemmed English Roses

Penelope Pitt, Viscountess Ligonier, by Thomas Gainsborough

Penelope Pitt, Viscountess Ligonier, by Thomas Gainsborough

Since Valentine’s Day is coming, I thought I would honor the lovely British ladies commemorated in the galleries of San Marino’s Huntington Museum. By and large, they are tall, have velvety pale skin, and look formidable. The first is Thomas Gainsborough’s 1770 portrait of Penelope Pitt, Viscountess Ligonier. The Viscountess had a scandalous life, according to the Huntington Museum:

While serving as envoy-extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to Turin (1761-68), George Pitt enrolled Penelope and her sister in a convent in Lyons, France, to be educated. While there she became acquainted with Edward Ligonier, lieutenant colonel in the British army. On December 16, 1766 they were married in the chapel of the British Embassy in Paris. They returned to England, where, in April 1770, her husband became Viscount Ligonier on the death of his uncle, the great military war hero, John Ligonier. In November of that year, Lady Ligonier renewed a prior acquaintance with Vittorio Amadeo, Count Alfieri (1749-1803), a young Italian ensign who later gained fame as a tragic poet celebrating the overthrow of tyranny by champions of liberty. Lady Ligonier was a woman “who delighted only in extremes,” according to Alfieri, and their flirtation soon escalated into a passionate “frenzy,” until their “mutual imprudence attracted the attention of her husband.” After confessing to Lord Ligonier as well as Alfieri (who rescinded his offer of marriage on learning of her previous affair with her husband’s groom, John Harding), Lady Ligonier fled to Calais, France, with her sister-in-law, Frances (Ligonier) Balfour (1742-1813), who had abetted the affair. Her husband sued for divorce and the marriage was dissolved. Lady Ligonier afterwards spent much of her time in France, but occasionally returned to England. At Northampton on May 4, 1784 she married Private Smith, a trooper in the Royal Horse Guard Blues.

Lady Frances Courtenay, Painted by Thomas Hudson

Lady Frances Courtenay, Painted by Thomas Hudson

Unlike Lady Ligonier, Lady Frances Courtenay led a much more conventional life. Unfortunately, she died at the age of 40. If she had hung around for another year or two, she, too, would have been a viscountess. The above portrait was painted in 1746.

The Huntingon is full of portraits of stunning English women, usually of the nobility. These two particularly struck my eye and, uh, my own personal appetite.


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