“The Duchess of Devonshire may be said almost to have produced a revolution in fashionable life…A kind of arbitress of fashion and of taste, she was approached with a sort of devotion” (Belle Assemblee). This excerpt is taken from the Duchess’s obituary in the society pages of the 1806 Belle Assemblee publication and showcases the incredible authority Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806), held over her mostly enthralled public in eighteenth-century England. It was a public that took to her fashion whims with a voracious appetite for imitation (Foreman 37). Her celebrity seemingly resulted in objects such as the miniature by Johann Heinrich Hurter, based on Angelica Kauffman’s oil painting of the young Georgiana. Such an object allowed the general public to collect fashionable portraits of celebrated figures (Victoria and Albert Museum). The miniature speaks to the growing trend of the emulation of the upper classes which sprung up within the consumer revolution, as well as the increasing fear of women seen within the public sphere.
Hurter’s miniature was crafted in England in 1779. It was painted on copper with enamel and set in a gilt-bronze frame. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London, England purchased the piece from a Christie’s sale in Geneva in 1980. The painting is quite small, only 6.45 cm by 8.55 cm to be exact, which allowed the eighteenth-century public to afford a “miniature” version of a much larger, grander painting of a famous sitter. The Duchess is depicted in a pale yellow dress with a light purple ribbon in her hair held in place with a jeweled pin (Victoria and Albert Museum). Her hair is done in the fashionable style of the period with rolled curls on each side of her head. Georgiana was married to the enormously wealthy Duke of Devonshire and was a member of the fashionable and noble elite (Belle Assemblee 122-123). Bell’s Weekly Messenger, an eighteenth-century publication that chronicled London’s high society, discussed her in its Fashionables section in 1799. It states that the Duchess hosted a Public Breakfast on the Bowling Green with the nobility of the surrounding areas and looks “in most excellent health and spirits.” It also discloses when she arrived, who she was with, what she was wearing, and how she spent her time (318) —such details would only be offered about someone who held the public’s attention as a modern celebrity would now. Amanda Foreman, author of Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire, reveals that journalists loved writing about Georgiana and she loved creating stories for them through her trend-making fashion statements, infectious charm, and constant frivolities (38). Georgiana wore fantastical hairstyles heightened with pads of horsehair and decorated with ornaments including her signature ostrich feathers; as well as “a ship in full sail, or an exotic arrangement of stuffed birds and waxed fruit, or even a pastoral tableau with wooden trees and sheep” (37). It is no wonder that she was labeled the queen of fashion and that the masses were clamoring to imitate her cutting-edge fashions and were collecting miniatures of her visage.
The consumer revolution in England, which really got going after 1750, allowed them to do just that. The consumer revolution is defined as a huge expansion in the purchasing of consumer goods enabled by new production and manufacturing technology. Such an expansion also generated new wealth. People who never dreamed of buying luxuries for themselves could afford them like never before. This rapidly growing consumer population copied the nobility’s elegant styles in order to showcase their newfound affluence and purchasing power (Koscak 1.9.14). Since Georgiana was a noble tastemaker to be reckoned with, as well as a charming socialite, she was a clear choice for emulation. The Belle Assemblee wrote that the Duchess of Devonshire “…produced a revolution in fashionable life. The influence derived from her rank and fortune gave a kind of credit to her example” (125). The miniature by Hurter displays this newfound obsession with the fashionable elite and the insatiable desire to dress like them. Other collectable images of Georgiana were made as well, including a jasperware portrait medallion modeled by John Flaxman and made by the Josiah Wedgewood factory in 1782. It depicts the Duchess of Devonshire in profile with an elaborate hairstyle (Victoria and Albert Museum).
Hurter’s miniature of the Duchess of Devonshire also sheds light on the concern of women in public, or the public sphere, in the eighteenth century. If Georgiana’s miniature was being produced and collected, then she was most certainly in the public sphere. Her family was a longtime supporter of the Whig political party and she went out in public to campaign for votes as well as stood on the hustings—or election platforms—to champion her candidate Charles Fox (Koscak 1.14.14). The Belle Assemblee considered her “a zealous advocate of the Whigs” (124). However, many saw this as unnatural and unfeminine since instead of staying home and looking after her children, she was involved in politics—traditionally a masculine pursuit. Many satirical prints were produced, lampooning her involvement and the neglect of her children. One such print titled “Political Affection” shows Georgiana nursing an aptly-chosen fox cub—signifying her connection to candidate Charles Fox—as her own child cries on the floor (The British Museum). The ideal of separate spheres—a private one for women and a public one for men—was very important to many in eighteenth-century England and Georgiana’s political zeal offended this notion. Many believed if women did not act appropriately then social disruption would ensue. Moreover, the country was already anxious about the growing freedom women had due to urbanization. Women were increasingly going to work or going out for entertainment, both within the public sphere. England was also concerned about the loss of control over its American colonies and it did not want embarrassingly unfeminine women making matters worse (Koscak 1.14.14).
Hurter’s miniature of Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, symbolized the growing trend of emulation spurned on by the consumer revolution and added to the concern of women in the public sphere in eighteenth-century England. It also signifies that much can be revealed by a miniature.
“The Duchess of Devonshire,” in Belle Assemblee; or, Court and Fashionable Magazine (April 1806): pp. 122-29.
“Fashionables” in Bell’s Weekly Messenger. 6 October 1799. Issue 180. 17th-18th Century Burney Collection Newspapers. Web. 4 March 2014.
Flaxman, John and Josiah Wedgewood. “Duchess of Devonshire.” 1782. Jasperware. Victoria and Albert Museum. C.120-1956. http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O149269/duchess-of-devonshire-portrait-medallion-flaxman-john/.
Foreman, Amanda. Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire. London: Harper Collins, 1998.
Hurter, Johann Heinrich. “Miniature.” 1779. Enamel on copper, gilt-brass frame. Victoria and Albert Museum. LOAN:GILBERT.263-2008. http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O157930/miniature-hurter-johann-heinrich/.
Koscak, Stephanie. “The Great Renunciation: Commercialization, Politics, and Gender.” University of Los Angeles, California. 9 January 2014.
Koscak, Stephanie. “A Revolution in Fashionable Life: Radical Whigs and Radical Fashion.” University of Los Angeles, California. 14 January 2014.
“Political Affection.” 1784. Etching on paper. The British Museum. J,2.128. http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=1645550&partId=1&searchText=georgiana+cavendish&page=2.