She inspired a nursery rhyme, fascinated Casanova, was painted by Joshua Reynolds and depicted on snuff boxes, but who was Kitty Fisher?
Catherine Marie Fisher's early life is shrouded in mystery but was almost certainly ignominious. We don't even know when she was born. Yet this girl, who started out as a milliner, became one of the most famous courtesans of the eighteenth century. She bedded men of wealth and position in society and her appearance and dress were widely copied. She appeared in trashy broadsheets - the tabloids of the day - and men took snuff from boxes decorated with her scantily clad picture.
In 1763, Giacomo Casanova visited London and was introduced to her. He said:
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. When she had gone, Mrs Wells told us that Kitty had eaten a bank-note for a thousand guineas, on a slice of bread and butter, that very day. The note was a present from Sir Akins, brother of the fair Mrs Pitt. I do not know whether the bank thanked Kitty for the present she had made it.
So, the great lover got away from her. But many others didn't.
Kitty was a great self-publicist - in common with many celebrities today - and loved being the centre of attention. Her affairs were not confined to single men. One of her most infamous was with the 6th Earl of Coventry, whose wife, Maria Gunning, was her great rival. One day, Countess Rosenberg-Orsini (herself one of Casanova's conquests), wrote of an encounter between the two women:
"The other day they ran into each other in the park and Lady Coventry asked Kitty the name of the dressmaker who had made her dress. Kitty Fisher answered she had better ask Lord Coventry as he had given her the dress as a gift." The altercation continued with Lady Coventry calling her an impertinent woman, and Kitty replying that she would have to accept this insult because Maria became her 'social superior' on marrying Lord Coventry, but she was going to marry a Lord herself just to be able to answer back"
Another trip to the park caused yet another scandal for Kitty - and one she made the most of. She was out riding one day when her horse threw her. Kitty fell, her skirts blew up and revealed rather more than a respectable lady should. Bear in mind also that ladies didn't tend to wear panties in those days, as they were considered unhygienic. At first, Kitty appears to have been mortified and burst into tears, but she recovered herself quickly enough, laughed heartily and summoned a sedan chair. Onlookers were scandalised and a few more column inches were added to the scandal rags, as the incident was widely reported.It did Kitty's 'career' no harm at all and you can't help wondering if she staged the whole event.
Kitty's lifestyle was lavish by any standards, financed by her lovers and admirers. She employed liveried servants - the first of her class to do so, according to Countess Rosenberg-Orsini. She was bold, brash and men adored her, as did artists. In addition to a number of portraits by Joshua Reynolds, Kitty was painted by Philip Mercier, Richard Purcell, Nathaniel Hone and James Northcote. And she influenced other branches of the arts as well. A country dance, bearing her name, was published in 1764. Kitty also inspired the nursery rhyme, Lucy Locket. A seemingly innocent little children's ditty, it takes on a whole new meaning when you remember that 'locket' was also slang for vagina and that prostitutes used to tie their pockets around their thighs with ribbons. The rhyme really refers to Kitty's habit of stealing other women's husbands:
- "Lucy Locket lost her pocket,
- Kitty Fisher found it;
- But ne'er a penny was there in't
- Except the binding round it."
Kitty got her wish to be buried in her finest ball gown and she was interred in Benenden churchyard. Many would argue that she was the real first celebrity - famous for being infamous.