You may know a variation on the following rhyme:
Lucy Locket lost her pocket,
Kitty Fisher found it,
Not a penny was there in it,
Only ribbon round it.
This post is about the courtesan who (inappropriately) inspired this children’s rhyme. I am also paying special attention to a beautiful painting of her captured by Nathaniel Hone in 1765.
Catherine Maria Fischer, better known as Kitty Fisher, is known by some as the first celebrity. Little is known about her background though it is fairly certain she came from humble origins. Contemporary sources suggest she was a lady’s maid, or perhaps the daughter of a stays-maker, or worked as a milliner.
She was probably introduced to the beau monde by Ensign Anthony George Martin, though in his scandalous memoirs Admiral Keppel claimed that he was the first to take notice of eighteen-year-old Kitty and supported her in luxury before she moved on. As a courtesan, Kitty was well known for her wit, beauty, and horsemanship. In the infamous Casanova’s record of his meeting with her he recalls a friend claiming that, although she was bedecked with diamonds, Casanova could have Kitty for only 10 guineas. Casanova refused on the grounds that she did not speak French.
Kitty married the MP for Rye, John Norris, in 1766 shortly before her early death in 1767 in her twenties. The unequal match took place in Scotland, away from the interference of John’s parents who would have be unhappy he was marrying his mistress. Though Fisher probably died from tuberculosis, contemporary rumour suggested that her death was a result of lead poisoning through over-use of cosmetics.
This painting by Nathaniel Hore displays Kitty in a state of semi-undress looking straight out of the painting at her viewers. The painting is almost certainly one which was displayed at the Society of Artists in 1765 and which was described by the Public Advertiser as:
A portrait of a Lady whose charms are well known to the town. The painter has ingeniously attempted to acquaint us with her name by a rebus upon Canvass. By her side a Kitten (Kitty) is attempting to get into a basin of Gold Fish (Kitty Fisher).
Though this painting appears to be in a private, intimate setting, a lovely touch is the crowded windows you can see in the reflective surface of the goldfish bowl. This could be a comment on the nature of celebrity, or Hone acknowledging Kitty’s significant visibility in print culture at the time.
I found it interesting that this painting nods to a couple of literary works. The kitten and fish bowl could have evoked in the viewer’s mind Thomas Gray’s ‘Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes’. This work written upon the death of his friends cat highlights the dangerous desires of women;
With many an ardent wish,
She stretched in vain to reach the prize.
What female heart can gold despise?
What Cat’s averse to fish?
A handful of lines in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra may also be alluded as Cleopatra says:
I will betray
Tawny-finn’d fishes; my bended hook shall pierce
Their slimy jaws; and, as I draw them up,
I’ll think them every one an Antony.
However, Hone wasn’t the only one to capture Kitty Fisher’s image. In fact, the booming print culture of the Eighteenth Century played a significant factor in her fame. Fisher’s image often appeared in print shop windows alongside pamphlets which detailed in a variety of forms her various intrigues.
What means this strange infatuation,
That rages at the head o’th’ nation?
Is she alone the finest whore
Among, at least, an hundred score?
Are there not fairer on the town,
That walk the streets and take a crown?
(Kitty’s Stream 1759)
Fisher was also painted several times by Sir Joshua Reynolds. One of the most famous of these paintings shows her as Cleopatra dissolving a massive pearl into a glass of wine. In the story of Cleopatra she then drinks the expensive vino. Rumour has it that Kitty once ate a 100 pound bank note on a slice of buttered bread. Reynolds’ image points wittily to this tale whilst highlighting a theme of ‘luxurious consumption’ which is common in works dealing with courtesans/prostitutes. Maria Pointon’s fascinating essay on representations of Kitty Fisher points out how Reynolds presents Fisher as a ‘dangerous consumer of men’s wealth’.
However, as the anonymous author of Kitty’s Stream pointed out to his readers,
And, if we give the Devil his Due,
The Fault is not in Her—But You.