Mary Robinson - portrait by Hoppner
Mary Robinson would never have been seen out and about looking anything but at her most elegant, although her style, at least in her early years, was less flamboyant than most. On her first visit to Ranelagh she wore a simple Quaker gown which ensured that she was noticed. It was of light brown lustring with close round cuffs. She left her auburn curls unpowdered, upon which she pinned a plain round cap and white chip hat, without any ornament.
Later, when she became famous as mistress to the Prince of Wales, she set tongues wagging by entertaining lavishly, and sending female hearts beating with envy. Every new gown she wore, the very latest Paris had to offer, was imitated and emulated to the smallest degree. And ever the actress, she loved to drive about Hyde Park in her new blue and silver phaeton, drawn by milk white ponies, playing to the crowds. Sometimes she would be very simply attired wearing a straw hat tied at the back of her head in the style of a paysanne, at others painted, powdered, patched and rouged to perfection as any fashionable leader of the ton should be.
Charles James Fox and Mary
Unfortunately, Mary Robinson never did succeed in finding a man rich enough to afford her, and as a consequence of her love of spending she quickly fell into debt. Not that her concerns over lack of money ever taught her prudence. She considered her high living standards as necessary for her status. The £5,000 that she managed to squeeze out of the young Prince George after their brief affair ended, helped a little. She believed this allowance to be well deserved as she had given up her career on the stage for him. And of course credit was easily available in anticipation of more from the Prince once he came of age.
Money sometimes came her way if her husband had a win at cards at Brooks’s. And famous artists such as Hoppner, Sir Joshua Reynolds and George Romney would paint portraits of her without charging a fee as they could sell print copies to the masses because of her beauty and status as a fashion icon.
Banistre Tarleton - portrait by Reynolds
A new love came into her life and Mary and Tarleton were very much the celebrity couple. Banistre Tarleton, a hero of the American War of Independence, with his famously cropped hair, looked exceedingly handsome in his hussar uniform of blue jacket, waistcoat and leather boots that fitted as tight as silk stockings. Mary was proclaimed as a fashion icon by Lady’s Magazine, who even named a hat after her. ‘The Perdita’, as it became known, was a chip hat with a bow tied under the chin and pink ribbons puffed around the crown. It proved to be immensely popular.
On her return from France in January 1782, Mary wore one of her Paris gowns of white satin with purple breast-bows for the opera. Her head-dress was a cap composed of white and purple feathers entwined with flowers and festooned with diamond pins. According to the Herald she looked supremely beautiful, so lovely that the audience lingered to watch as she stayed to select a box to rent following the performance. Later, her decoration of the box caused a flurry of gossip in the newssheets as she upholstered the chairs in pink satin, and lined the walls with mirrors.
Mary Robinson- portrait by Romney
Despite the fact that Mary considered herself to be intellectually superior to most courtesans, and infinitely more sensitive, she was considered to be very much the leader of the Cyprian corps. But no one, not courtesan nor aristocrat could rival her beauty or style. Her life might have been considered utterly scandalous, but in her prime she remained very much the centre of attention.
The story of Mary Robinson, also known as Perdita
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