Kitty Fisher: An Eighteenth-Century Celebrity
In this 1759 portrait by Sir Joshua Reynold (1723-92) the sitter appears the epitome of a fashionable and well-to-do young woman. However, this is no conventional English lady, but rather the famous courtesan Catherine Maria ‘Kitty’ Fisher, born in c.1741.
According to her contemporary, the Reverend John Mitford, Kitty Fisher’s parentage was ‘low and mean’ and she started work in a milliner’s shop. However, Kitty soon used her wit and charm to enter into the fringes of London society firstly through Ensign, and later Lieutenant-General, Anthony George Martin. Here she enjoyed a rapid rise to fame thanks to a series of well-to-do, wealthy lovers and her capacity for self-publicity. Just as today’s celebrities use modern media to cultivate their image, Kitty managed to attain celebrity status by collaborating with artists and writers, bringing her image to the attention of the public and promoting her reputation.
As well as being beautiful and witty, Kitty was also a daring horsewoman. On one occasion in March 1759, while riding in St. James’s Park, she was thrown from her horse and landed on the ground in such a way that her skirts billowed up. Initially embarrassed and tearful, Kitty regained her composure and called for a sedan chair to take her home. This incident inspired a flurry of songs, verses, pictures, pamphlets and entire books. One cartoon, The merry accident, or a print in the morning. A chair, a chair, for the lady. Who rides fastest, Miss Kitty Fisher, or her gay gallant shows Kitty reclining elegantly on the ground surrounded by a posse of well-dressed men. But was this an accident which Kitty successfully turned to her advantage or a carefully choreographed publicity stunt?
Kitty’s fame grew and multiple contemporaries commented on her wealth. Giacomo Casanova, the famous Italian lover, wrote ‘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’. Although, Casanova declined on the grounds Kitty did not speak French. Similarly, Giustiniana Wynne wrote ‘She lives in the greatest possible splendour, spends twelve thousand pounds a year, and she is the first of her social class to employ liveried servants – she even has liveried chaise porters’.
Stories of Kitty’s extravagance even claimed that she had eaten a £20 banknote, worth around £20,000 today, between two slices of bread and butter to show her disdain for such a paltry sum. The nursery rhyme, Lucy Locket lost her pocket, Kitty Fisher found it; Not a penny was there in it, Only ribbon round it, highlights the contrast between the fortunes of Kitty and her rival Lucy, a barmaid at a Fleet Street Tavern. As one meaning of ‘pocket’ was a pouch or a small bag the implication being that Lucy Lockett had very little money, although a more sexual connotation suggests that Kitty had stolen one of Lucy lovers.
Artists were fascinated by Kitty as they knew her portraits would attract crowds to their works, and she in turn understood the way that exhibitions could enhance her public image. Her portraits were reproduced as cheap prints, often small enough to be carried inside a gentleman’s snuff-box or pocket watch, and sold in their thousands. She was Joshua Reynold’s favourite model and he painted at least four portraits of her between 1759 and 1766, prompting rumours that they too were lovers.
Celebrity, wealth and her rapid rise through the echelons of London society earned Kitty the prize of a good marriage. In 1766, she married John Norris (1740-1811), M.P. for Rye. At her husband’s family house, Hempsted in the village of Benenden in Kent (now the premises of Benenden School), she devoted herself to building up her husband’s dilapidated fortunes and became a well-regarded member of local society for her philanthropic efforts and generosity to the poor. Sadly Kitty did not enjoy her new-found status for long. Only four months after her marriage she died in March 1767 aged around 26, possibly from either the effects of lead-based cosmetics, smallpox or consumption. Flamboyant to the end, Kitty’s last wish was to be buried in her best ball gown and she lies in Benenden Churchyard.