‘You know he promised me, don’t you Mr Gainsborough. Promised me the world he did – my prince, my Florizel. And now he’s thrown me over for that wicked slattern, that foul strumpet Elizabeth Armistead. But you’d know all about that wouldn’t you, Mr Gainsborough? It’s been in the daily gazettes. They’re doing well from my woes, they are. I’ve made sure of that. I have connections you know. And I have his letters too, Mr Gainsborough. Those letters are a godsend to me. And very saucy they are too. He was absolutely besotted – and I will use them too if needs be, Mr Gainsborough. If needs be I’ll cause much embarrassment for his royal person. Him a future king and all. Why, he’ll be a laughing stock forever and a day. Some of the things, sir, that young scallywag wanted me to do you would not believe. Fair maiden that I am, I could hardly contemplate them myself. Begged me to do them, he did. But I am a proper girl with a proper upbringing, as you can no doubt tell, Mr Gainsborough, being a well lived man yourself, sir. And that young hare-brain knows I will tell. Tell all I will. I’ll hold nothing back if I do not get what has been guaranteed to me. If I cannot return to him he’ll rue the day what he promised me after he saw me on Mr Garrick’s stage and wished for some favours from me. Conspired to meet me he did. Made it his business then to insure that we were alone before he put his proposition to me. What was a fair maid to do in that situation? I told him, I did, that I was a married woman with a daughter, but he insisted, he truly did. Twenty thousand pounds he promised if I were to fulfil his needs, Mr Gainsborough. Twenty thousand on him reaching his coming of age he would pass to me in bank notes for my labours. Have I seen a penny of it, sir? Wretchedly done by I am. Wretchedly treated by him. He’s reneged and I want justice. He was so very green back then. Only seventeen. I taught him well in the boudoir, I did, perhaps too well. Methinks I shouldn’t be talking to you like this, but you are of an age to be worldly, Mr Gainsborough. Surely you do not object. And that is why I am here, Mr Gainsborough. I am imploring you to assist me in getting back what is rightfully mine.
And now, look what has become of me. That bitch only had to flash her boobies and what-not at him and he was goggle-eyed for her, he was. He treated me like a fat tub of lard, he did. I am not having it, sir! He tells me I’m finished, he does. And after all I done for him. Silly fool. But I’ll not be bettered Mr Gainsborough, I will not.
Now, as to why I am here in your studio, Mr Gainsborough, you ask? Well I want to show him, I do. Show him what he is missing, for you see, I still have feelings for my Florizel, good sir. You are the greatest painter in the land. No, don’t shake your head at me. You are and I am not the only one who says it. You have painted many a pretty woman and made them bedazzle, made them most comely indeed. And many not so pretty, I dare say, as well. You’d made them appear ever so beautiful too, although no doubt it took great mastery of your art to do so. Tizzy them up you do and make them look fit for a king. Now I don’t need too much of that dabbing here and dabbing there to improve my looks, Mr Gainsborough. I just ask you to paint what you see and I will do the rest. I want the whole of London to see what that silly boy has done to me, tossing me aside for that scarlet floozy. And if he still hasn’t come to his senses after he appraises my painting when it is finished, I’ll publish those letters. I truly will Mr Gainsborough. He’ll be red-faced. He’ll be a laughing stock. He will. I’ll not be bettered by him – or anyone else.
Maybe it went something like that – maybe it was completely different. There’s no way of knowing, but the above is my imagining of it – the conversation between the most famous mistress in the land and a renowned artist, one whose fame lasts till this day. The outcome was an art work that helped symbolise an age.
Mary Robinson, Mrs Robinson – known to all as Perdita, was the future George IV’s first mistress, well before the Regency and his eventual crowning as king. The woman, born Mary Darby, was around the twenty mark when she returned to London. Her triumph was in the David Garrick’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s ‘The Winter’s Tale’. As well as all of the city, she dazzled the young prince and he made it his business to arrange a clandestine meeting with the beguiling actress. Mary, disastrously married to a gold-digging wastrel to whom she had borne a daughter, jumped at the opportunities such a connection would provide for her. He became her Florziel, after the play’s hero. He also made generous monetary promises to her in return for her presence in his chamber, on the proviso she left the stage. Her star rose very quickly, but only for a few brief years was she a future monarch’s plaything. Her fame, as opposed to infamy, was to lay elsewhere – after she acquired a more sophisticated relationship with the language of her realm. But it was during these years on a prince’s arm, however, that she became a trend-setter, equivalent to today’s celebrities. She introduced to society ladies a looser style of fashion, the Perdita. This eponymous item was a flowing Grecian-style gown revolutionising the look of a woman of society.
The Prince, now educated, soon tired of her and began his liaisons with a long list of beauties out to make the most of their charms while they still possessed them. Later on this was to even involve a secret marriage with a commoner (Mrs Herbert), before he gained the throne with poor Caroline of Brunswick as his Queen. He loathed her.
But Mrs Robinson, like her famous cinematic namesake last century, was a force to be reckoned with. Gainsborough, for whatever reason, painted her – several times. Look closely in the image and one can see a miniature held in Perdita’s hand – this in turn a likeness of the lover who jilted her, her prince. That sent a powerful message to the future highness concerning his promises made to her, as well as to the public who’d soon pick up on a certain fact. This lady never forgets.
It dawned on the Prince that she was fully prepared to bring him down. He initiated discussions to prevent his name being further dragged through the mud. Eventually the two came to an agreement over the letters – but she only ended up receiving a minuscule amount compared to the sum signed off on. But by then she had other irons in the fire – she had moved on.
Despite being partially paralysed by an infection, caused by a miscarriage, Mrs Robinson was now engaged in a long, lust-ridden affair with a hero of the American Revolutionary Wars, one Banastre Tarleton – she was later to base her novel, ‘The Patriot’, around his exploits. This relationship didn’t end happily for her either, but at least it took fifteen years to play out. Tarleton took a less blemished maiden to the altar.
And then she had this:- London’s Summer Morning
Who has not waked to list the busy sounds
Of summer’s morning, in the sultry smoke
Of noisy London? On the pavement hot
The sooty chimney-boy, with dingy face
And tattered covering, shrilly bawls his trade,
Rousing the sleepy housemaid. At the door
The milk-pail rattles, and the tinkling bell
Proclaims the dustman’s office; while the street
Is lost in clouds impervious. Now begins
The din of hackney-coaches, waggons, carts;
While tinmen’s shops, and noisy trunk-makers,
Knife-grinders, coopers, squeaking cork-cutters,
Fruit-barrows, and the hunger-giving cries
Of vegetable-vendors, fill the air.
Now every shop displays its varied trade,
And the fresh-sprinkled pavement cools the feet
Of early walkers. At the private door
The ruddy housemaid twirls the busy mop,
Annoying the smart ’prentice, or neat girl,
Tripping with band-box lightly. Now the sun
Darts burning splendor on the glittering pane,
Save where the canvas awning throws a shade
On the gay merchandise. Now, spruce and trim,
In shops (where beauty smiles with industry)
Sits the smart damsel; while the passenger
Peeps through the window, watching every charm.
Now pastry dainties catch the eye minute
Of humming insects, while the limy snare
Waits to enthrall them. Now the lamp-lighter
Mounts the tall ladder, nimbly venturous,
To trim the half-filled lamps, while at his feet
The pot-boy yells discordant! All along
The sultry pavement, the old-clothes-man cries
In tone monotonous, while sidelong views
The area for his traffic: now the bag
Is slyly opened, and the half-worn suit
(Sometimes the pilfered treasure of the base
Domestic spoiler), for one half its worth,
Sinks in the green abyss. The porter now
Bears his huge load along the burning way;
And the poor poet wakes from busy dreams,
To paint the summer morning
In later life she became known, by one and all, not for her Kardashian lifestyle, but for her literary achievements. Perdita was put aside for a new appellation, the ‘English Sappho’, in tribute of her poetry. In all she penned six novels on top of her versifying. Her crowning glory is that, along with her contemporary, Mary Wollstonecraft, she was a leading advocate for women’s rights of the era. Eventually, though, her affliction worsened. In 1800 she succumbed to it.
For us there is a certain notoriety attached to the name Mrs Robinson, but I doubt that even the subject of Benjamin Braddock’s ardour in ‘The Graduate’ could match the original Mrs Robinson’s place in the annals of women to be reckoned with.