The best way into these questions is through one of the most striking novelties of eighteenth-century culture: a growing public fascination with the lives of low-born whores. Around 1700 this would have been unimaginable. Even in London, few prostitutes ever became famous enough to be widely known or written about. By the end of the cen­tury, however, even as ever-greater stress came to be placed on the sexual passivity of respectable women, a whole culture of celebrity had grown up around their most immoral counterparts. Their actions were routinely reported in newspapers and magazines, their person­alities analysed in pamphlets and poems, their portraits painted,

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29. Scene 3: The would-be rake (at left, having his pocket picked), in the company of whores.

engraved, and caricatured. So ubiquitous did this type of material become that a few decades later it gave rise to a new term, ‘pornog­raphy’, literally meaning the description of harlots.1

Some earlier cultures had shown unusual interest in promiscuous women. In Renaissance Italy many courtesans had achieved consider­able fame and literary renown. The same was true of the leading geisha of pre-modern Japan. English observers were themselves par­ticularly struck by the status of harlots in classical times, for their prominence appeared to prefigure the celebrity of immoral women in contemporary society, and to illustrate the untold wealth and power that they might accrue. It thus became fashionable in the later eight­eenth century to refer to prostitutes as ‘Paphians’, ‘Cyprians’, and ‘Cythereans’, evoking the ancient worship of Venus (or ‘Cytheria’) on Cyprus and its city of Paphos, or to talk of a present-day ‘Thais’, ‘Lais’, or ‘Phryne’, in comparison with the famous hetaerae of ancient Greece (see plate 12).2

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30. This plagiary of the Rake’s Progress, available in colour as well as black and white, was one of several immediately offered for sale by the leading printseller Thomas Bowles and his associates.

There were also various domestic precedents. Already in the middle ages particular interest had attached to women, such as royal mis­tresses, whose unchastity appeared to invert the natural order. The Reformation further politicized the issue of sexual morality and its social consequences. By the seventeenth century, as we have seen, im­morality amongst the governing classes, and especially at court, had the potential to attract a great deal of attention in the world at large, whilst adultery lower down the social scale was also capable of pro­voking considerable publicity within its own sphere. Finally there was a growing literary interest in prostitution. Elizabethan and Jacobean drama is full of fictional bawds and whores. In the same period, cheap pamphlet biographies of recently executed criminals also became a popular genre, providing supposedly truthful narratives of real-life rogues and harlots.3

Yet in almost all these cases the interest was incidental and its tone hostile. It was not until the Restoration that notoriously immoral women began to be referred to regularly in print during their own lifetime, and in terms that were less severe.4 In the 1660s, the public fame of bawds such as Damaris Page, Priscilla Fotheringham, and

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31. Some of Bowles’s sets included this extra scene, which extended Hogarth’s original narrative.

Madam Cresswell was such that their names were used in political invective as well as to peddle salacious literature. By the 1670s and 1680s, Mrs Cresswell (the first procuress to merit entry in the Dic­tionary of National Biography) was renowned enough to be casually referred to in plays, ballads, and pamphlets, and to be pictured as one of the sights of the capital in Marcellus Laroon’s much reprinted Cryes of the City of London, first published in 1687.5

By the end of the seventeenth century there had thus begun to emerge a new kind of sexual celebrity, characterized by sustained public interest in the vices of low as well as high-born women. Yet several key ingredients were still lacking. The sexual gossip of the day was comparatively exclusive, and most of it was not published but transmitted only through speech and manuscript. In September 1660, for example, Pepys was told how the famous procuress Lady Bennett, being hired by a man to get a pretty salesgirl to sleep with him, had achieved it ‘by counterfeiting to fall into a swoon upon the sight of her in her shop, became acquainted with her and at last got her ends

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32. The images of A Rake’s Progress were endlessly copied
and re-used: in cheaper sets, like this one,

 

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33. . . . as stand-alone engravings,

 

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34. . . . to illustrate books,

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35. . . . even to wrap tobacco.

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3 6. Mrs Cresswell: The first bawd famous enough to be pictured as one of the sights of London.

of her’. Like other news of rape, seduction, and bawdry, it was recorded in his diary but never made it into print. Even verse satires, the kind of contemporary writing most focused on topical sexual gos­sip, were only just beginning to circulate at all widely, and their production and availability fluctuated considerably. Moreover, the fame of individual prostitutes, compared with that of brothel-keepers, remained insubstantial and fleeting. They are sometimes referred to in poems, pamphlets, and private papers, but almost nothing tangible is recorded about any such woman, unless she happened to become the mistress of a great man, or appeared on stage. Finally, writing as yet played a negligible part in creating or maintaining sexual celebrity: it merely reflected it. Both in printed and in manuscript accounts of notorious bawds and whores, the women themselves remain obscure or obviously imaginary, their main role being to heighten the writer’s own titillating or satirical message.6

Just a few decades later the picture was strikingly different. As well as a continued interest in fictional harlots, there developed a remark­able vogue for purportedly factual narratives about real women. In 1723, the downfall of the courtesan Sarah Prydden, better known as Sally Salisbury, provoked a string of biographical publications. An illustrated broadsheet summarized her Effigies, Parentage, Education, Life, Merry-Pranks and Conversation. The book-length Genuine His­tory of Mrs Sarah Prydden was soon reprinted and extended into Authentick Memoirs of the Life, Intrigues and Adventures of the Cele­brated Sally Salisbury, which ran to two further editions and was translated into Dutch and German in the same year. Soon afterwards there appeared a Compleat History of the Life, Intrigues and Death of that Celebrated Lady of Pleasure, Sally Salisbury. Pamphlets about her were published in Dublin as well as London, and memoirs of her life were also one of the selling points of The Town Spy, printed in Glouces­ter in 1725, sold in Bristol, Worcester, Hereford, Ross, Cirencester, Devizes, Cardiff, Monmouth, and Northampton, and distributed even further afield by travelling pedlars. Even fifty years later her name was still current in popular ballads. Other notorious contemporaries of Mrs Prydden were commemorated in such works as The Life of the Late Celebrated Mrs Elizabeth Wisebourn, vulgarly call’d Mother Wybourn, which went through three editions in 1721, The History of the Life and Intrigues of that Celebrated Courtezan, and Posture- Mistress, Eliz. Mann, alias Boyle, alias Sample, commonly call’d The Royal Soveraign (1724), The Velvet Coffee-Woman: Or, the Life, Gal­lantries and Amours of the Late Famous Mrs. Anne Rochford (1728), The Life and Intrigues of the Late Celebrated Mrs Mary Parrimore, the Tall Milliner of ’Change Alley (1729), and The Life and Character of Moll King, late Mistress of King’s Coffee-House, which appeared in 1747. All this was still before 1750. In the second half of the century such individual histories became ubiquitous, and were even joined by collective biographies of leading courtesans and brothel-keepers.7

A similar trend is observable in the case of pictures of immoral women. Private paintings of lovers and mistresses had been made long before 1700, and they became increasingly common thereafter, in line

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37. A cheap ballad of 1685, purporting to show the likenesses of Charles
II’s rival mistresses, the Duchess of Portsmouth and Nell Gwyn (in fact,
both woodcuts reused existing, generic images).

with the general explosion of portraiture in eighteenth-century England. The rise of a more general interest in the appearance of famous harlots was new, and is apparent from the increasing mass-production of their prints for public sale.8

At first it was only royal courtesans who were commemorated in this way. In the later seventeenth century, images of Charles Il’s mis­tresses appear to have been tremendously popular. Cheapest of all were the crude woodcuts of them that adorned penny ballads. Much more numerous and realistic were separate engraved and mezzotint portraits, whose purpose was to provide a true likeness of the sitter. These retailed, in various sizes, for sixpence upwards. At least a dozen
different ones were issued of the Duchess of Portsmouth before 1700. Some fourteen different contemporary prints survive of Nell Gwyn in various poses; and fifteen at least of Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland. Even pictures of lesser mistresses, such as Mary Davis and Peg Hughes, were popular enough to be regularly reissued (see illus­trations 10, 11, 37, 38; and plates 13 and 14).9

This fashion continued in the eighteenth century, although the defer­ential tone of straightforward portraits was now increasingly challenged by satirical pictures of royal and aristocratic whores. In the reign of

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38. A mass-market print from the 1670s of Mary Davis, another of Charles II’s mistresses.

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39. A 1738 satire on George II and his mistress, Lady Yarmouth.

George II, both the king’s own mistress, Lady Yarmouth, and the Prince of Wales’s, Anne Vane, were the butt of much visual comedy. Under the uxorious George III, the focus shifted to women associated with leading courtiers, such as the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Grafton, whose premiership in 1769 provoked a flurry of prints of his lover, Nancy Parsons. By the end of the eighteenth century it had become the norm for such liaisons to be subjected to incessant and savage carica­ture (see illustrations 39 to 42, and plate 15).10

Images of less exalted courtesans first began to circulate publicly in the first half of the eighteenth century. Several of the biographies of

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40. The Prince of Wales with his new wife – and, in the background, his discarded mistress and bastard son (1736).

Sally Salisbury included portraits. There was also an immediate mar­ket for high quality separate three-quarter and half-length mezzotints of her (see illustrations 43 and 44). Such was the interest in this new genre that as early as 1747 a guide to collecting prints recommended setting aside a whole volume for ‘the portraits of women, both ancient

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41. Nancy Parsons, companion of the Duke of Grafton, Prime Minister from 1768 to 1770 – until she left him for another, much younger duke.

and modern, who were either imperfect, mad, or prostitutes’. But it was in the 1750s and 1760s that pictures of famous harlots really became popular. In the space of just five or six years, perhaps as many as a dozen different prints were published of the much-adored Kitty Fisher (see illustration 45 and plates 16 to 18). By 1765, a visitor to London noted that prints of celebrated ladies of pleasure were both extraordinarily cheap (‘a few guineas will buy a whole seraglio’) and were issued in huge editions, of three or four thousand at a time. In the following year, the catalogue of just one London print-seller included dozens of images of well-known courtesans, in a variety of formats. Large mezzotint portraits of ‘the most celebrated beauties of the present time’, chaste as well as unchaste, cost a shilling each. Smaller mezzotints of many of the same women were available for sixpence. Cheapest of all were tiny prints made to fit inside gentle­men’s watch cases and snuff-boxes, the mass-produced equivalent of portrait miniatures. For threepence, or sixpence ‘neatly coloured’, a

Sexual celebrity

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42. A satire on the morals of the Prime Minister, his wife, and his mistress,
published in the magazine The Political Register in February 1769.

 

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43. One of several mezzotint prints of the courtesan Sally Salisbury produced around 1723.

man could carry his favourite harlot around with him in perfect priv­acy, gazing upon her whenever he felt like it (see illustration 45).11

The poses and symbolism of these representations often hinted at sexual availability. Yet even the most apparently demure print served several purposes. It spread knowledge of a woman’s appearance, it enhanced her fame, and it allowed thousands of viewers to feel famil­iar, even possessive, towards her. As a commentator remarked in 1779, the most celebrated courtesans were now so well known, ‘and their persons are so perfectly described at the print-shops’, that they needed no introduction.[37] The same sense of celebrity and familiarity,

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44. A cheap, mass-market broadsheet, including a woodcut of the same image of Sally Salisbury.

sometimes leading to contempt, is also apparent from the 1750s onwards in the emergence of satirical representations of notorious whores.12

The growing renown of leading courtesans was also reflected in a whole variety of other ways. Their likenesses were circulated not just in prints and paintings but also in miniatures and medallions. Their sayings and doings were reported in newspapers, discussed in letters, and collected in books. Long before the sandwich had been invented, Fanny Murray was already legendary for having clapped a twenty – pound banknote between two slices of bread and consumed it, to show her disdain for the meanness of the sum.* Inevitably such fame infil­trated contemporary literature too. Already in the 1720s the poet Henry Carey was much annoyed to find that his chaste and innocent ballad ‘Sally in our Alley’, which depicted ‘love in the lowest class of

* By 1763 the same story (by now involving a hundred-pound note) had come to be retailed of her rival, Kitty Fisher: Giacomo Casanova, Memoirs of My Life, transl. Willard R. Trask, 12 vols (1970), ix. 308.

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45. A tiny engraving of the courtesan Kitty Fisher, made to be carried around inside a pocket watch (c. 1759).

human life’, had come to be regarded as an ode to Sally Salisbury. Half a century later, her life-story remained a staple of travelling puppet- shows, on a par with Dick Whittington and his Cat. Her successors were referred to in countless plays, verses, and essays. Their names were appropriated for everything from songs and tunes to items of fur­niture. Even homosexual prostitutes used them. Their influence was also apparent in fashion, so that reputable women were said to copy ‘the Kitty Fisher style’, or to appear in a ‘Fanny Murray cap’. It even introduced a new practice in the naming of racehorses, which before 1700 had rarely been called after individuals of any kind, let alone scandalous ones. In the 1730s, several thoroughbreds called ‘Sally Salisbury’ competed at meetings across the country. In later decades, well-known competitors and broodmares in England and North Amer­ica included ‘Fanny Murray’, ‘Kitty Fisher’, and ‘Nancy Dawson’.13[38]

Today the celebrity associated with sexual scandal is undoubtedly greater and more ubiquitous than ever before. Pornography of various kinds has become a major global industry. Across the western world, countless people achieve fame by publicizing their sexual exploits or revealing those of others. Publishers and broadcasters cater to an apparently insatiable public interest in the salacious details of people’s private lives: the fascination with sex and fame is an inescapable fact of our culture. Because it is most forcefully perpetuated by compara­tively recent inventions such as photo-magazines, television, and the internet, we tend to think of this as a quintessentially contemporary phenomenon. In fact, the foundations of this modern obsession were laid in the eighteenth century.