“The Female Phaeton”: Catherine Douglas, the Duchess who ‘set the World on Fire’

Today’s post is brought to us by fellow organiser Elizabeth Spencer

In his 1762 biography of ‘King’ Beau Nash – the Master of Ceremonies at Bath between 1705 and 1761 – Oliver Goldsmith recounts a now infamous incident involving Catherine Douglas, the Duchess of Queensberry. Nash, he wrote, ‘had the strongest aversion to a white apron…[and] I have known him on a ball to strip even the duchess of Q——–, and throw her apron at one of the hinder benches among the ladies women; observing, that none but Abigails appeared in white aprons.’ His actions may have given good cause for offence, as an ‘Abigail’ was a lady’s maid, but Goldsmith assures us that ‘the good natured duchess acquiesced in his censure, and with great good sense, and good humour, begged his Majesty’s pardon.’ Over the course of her lifetime the Duchess of Queensberry would break the rules many more times, and not just through her choice of dress; lauded as a great beauty, banished from court by the King, and famous for indulging in eccentric behaviour in her later years, she continued to challenge contemporary expectation until her death in 1777.

NPG 238; Catherine Douglas (nÈe Hyde), Duchess of Queensberry attributed to Charles Jervas

Born in 1701 Catherine – or ‘Kitty’ – Hyde married her second cousin Charles Douglas, third Duke of Queensberry and second Duke of Dover, in 1720. She became known for her fondness for aprons, and a portrait of her painted by Charles Jervas in the 1720s even shows her wearing one. Dressed as a milkmaid and posing in front of a rural idyll, the Duchess rests her hands on a milk pail. Pastoral portraits like this were popular amongst the elite in this period; however, while the Duchess’s status remains clear – she poses rather than works – the plainness of her dress is unusual. Indeed, her lack of artifice was often commented on by contemporaries. Mary Delany, for example, wrote in 1727 that Catherine ‘depended so much upon her native beauty that she despised all adornment.’ Delany was again startled in 1742 when the Duchess arrived for a visit wearing ‘no ruffles…no hoop, a tumbled apron, and her capuchin dangling round her arm’, but thought that ‘there was a grace in her altogether than shone out in spite of her dress.’ Author, politician and patron of the arts Horace Walpole was less complimentary in 1749, when he wrote that she had appeared in ‘her old forlorn trim, a white apron and white hood.’

The Duchess’s predilection for plain, ‘tumbled’ clothing may have stemmed from a belief that real beauty needed little adornment; country girls and milkmaids, for instance, were praised in contemporary representation for their natural beauty and simple, homespun clothing. Catherine’s beauty had indeed been lauded from an early age, and in 1722 Matthew Prior published ‘The Female Phaeton’, dedicated to the young Duchess’s first appearance in public:

‘THUS Kitty, Beautiful and Young,
And wild as Colt untam’d;
Bespoke the Fair from whom she sprung,
With little Rage inflam’d.’

Prior’s Kitty reportedly held on to this beauty later in life, and in 1740 Elizabeth Robinson Montagu wrote that the Duchess ‘was so far beyond the master-piece of art that one could hardly look at her clothes – allowing for her age I never saw so beautiful a creature.’ Even Horace Walpole – who once exclaimed ‘thank God! the Thames is between me and the Duchess of Queensbury’ – grudgingly admitted in 1771 that she was ‘still figuring in the world, not only by giving frequent balls, but really by her beauty.’

Though he sometimes praised the Duchess’s aging beauty, Walpole also often viciously mocked her and it is in his letters that we find anecdotes about the Duchess’s old-fashioned dress and eccentric behaviour. In 1773, for example, he wrote that she had appeared in ‘a new pink lutestring’, but ‘One should sooner take her for a young beauty of an old-fashioned century than for an antiquated goddess of this age – I mean by twilight.’ Mocking her eccentric behaviour in a letter written in 1749, he described how she had made an urgent visit to Lady Sophia Thomas in order to tell her ‘something of importance’; this ‘something of importance’ transpired to be a suggestion that a ‘couple of beef-steaks’, clapped together ‘as if they were a dumpling’, and eaten with pepper and salt ‘is the best thing you ever tasted.’ ‘Don’t a course of folly for forty years make one very sick?’ remarked Walpole, after recounting the tale.

The Duchess did not just court controversy in her later years, and in February 1728 had caused a scandal when she was banished from court. A great supporter and friend of John Gay, she had personally petitioned the King and Queen on his behalf when his play Polly, a sequel to The Beggar’s Opera, was refused a licence. In the words of Mary Delany, ‘She indiscreetly urged the King and Queen…upon which she is forbid the Court – a thing never heard of before to one of her rank.’ Delany added that ‘one might have imagined her beauty would have secured her from such treatment!’ The Duchess’s defiant statement in reply to the King’s instructions claimed that she was ‘surpriz’d and well pleas’d that the King hath given her so agreeable command as to stay away from Court.’ Catherine continued in her friendship with Gay until his death in 1732, and the pair even wrote letters together. Polly was not performed until 1777, when Catherine reportedly sang along from the audience.

In her sixties and seventies Catherine again attracted attention over her relationship with her servant Julius Soubise; born enslaved on the island of St. Kitts, Soubise was brought to England aboard a naval vessel and was given to her as a gift. In 1767, Lady Mary Coke wrote in her diary that when she had visited the Duchess she had found her ‘talking to her Black Boy, who indeed seems to have a very extraordinary capacity.’ The Duchess, she continued, had ‘taught him everything he had a mind to learn’ including riding and fencing, but Coke ‘cou’d not help thinking those exercises too much above his condition to be useful, & wou’d only serve to give him expectations.’ Despite a considerable difference in age – Soubise was born c.1754 – he and the Duchess were also rumoured to be lovers. Soubise was later accused of raping one of the Duchess’s servants, and fled to Calcutta shortly after his mistress’s death.

Over her lifetime the Duchess of Queensberry challenged contemporary expectation over how she should dress, as well as how she should behave; she defied royalty through her fierce patronage of Gay, and unsettled elite values by educating her servant in gentlemanly pursuits. Though she challenged these expectations, however, she is largely remembered for her transgressions against them, rather than for overcoming them. The comments we are left with often simply reduce her to, on the one hand, a famous beauty and, on the other, an elderly eccentric; although she apparently never lost her looks, she remained defined by her reputation for beauty until her death. Walpole – who veered between downright mockery and grudging admiration of the Duchess – was guiltier of this than most, and it is often his most ridiculous anecdotes that are remembered. Even her death in 1777, caused, according to Walpole, ‘from a surfeit of cherries’ appears out of the ordinary. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the Duchess was a ‘difficult’ woman who knew her own mind. Prior perhaps could not have known how right he would be when he wrote in 1722:

‘Fondess prevail’d, Mamma gave way;
Kitty at Heart’s Desire,
Obtain’d the Chariot for a Day,
And set the World on Fire.’

(Image credit: National Portrait Gallery, London.)


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