Coventry [née Gunning], Maria, countess of Coventry
- Joan Lane
Maria Coventry, countess of Coventry (bap. 1732, d. 1760)
Coventry [née Gunning], Maria, countess of Coventry (bap. 1732, d. 1760), figure of scandal, was born at Hemingford Grey Manor House, Huntingdonshire, an estate owned by her aunt, and baptized there on 15 August 1732, the eldest of the four daughters of Colonel John Gunning of Castle Coote, co. Roscommon, and Bridget, the daughter of Theobald Bourke, sixth Viscount Mayo. Her childhood was spent in Ireland after her father succeeded to the family estates. Maria and her younger sister Elizabeth (1733–1790) [see Campbell, Elizabeth] arrived in London in June 1751 and aroused considerable interest in fashionable society; Henrietta Knight, Lady Luxborough, wrote to William Shenstone of 'the beauty of the two Irish women, Miss Gunnings'. It was rumoured that Maria intended to go on the stage because her family was so poor. Nicknamed the Beauties, the two Gunning sisters were admired by George II and, although impoverished, both quickly made very good matches: on 1 March 1752 at St George's, Hanover Square, London, Maria married George William Coventry, sixth earl of Coventry (1722–1809), the grandest landowner in Worcestershire, with an estate at Croome Court, then being improved by Lancelot Brown; her sister Elizabeth had secretly married the duke of Hamilton less than a month before. The earl of Coventry was lord of the bedchamber to both George II and George III. He and his wife had a London house at 29 Piccadilly and Maria was a constant topic of contemporary gossip; crowds assembled to watch her when she appeared in public. The first of her five children, a daughter, was born in 1753, and an heir, George William (1758–1831), five years later. However, the Coventrys were already quarrelling in public, notoriously on a visit to Paris shortly after their marriage. A year later Lady Coventry was reputed to be in love with Frederick St John, second Viscount Bolingbroke (1734–1787), with whom she secretly corresponded, and late in 1756 it was rumoured that Lord Coventry would seek a divorce.
Lady Coventry's activities were recorded in many contemporary diaries and letters, all noting her beauty, but some describing her immature behaviour. Horace Walpole seems to have been particularly intrigued by her, while Mrs Delany considered her to have 'a fine figure, and [to be] vastly handsome, notwithstanding a silly look sometimes about her mouth; she has a thousand airs, but with a sort of innocence that diverts one' (Autobiography … Mrs Delany, 300). Her portrait was painted by several leading artists, including Francis Cotes and Gavin Hamilton. She was seen in public towards the end of her life, at the Worcester music festival in 1758, dining at Strawberry Hill in 1759, and at Lord Ferrers's trial for treason in April 1760; there were press reports of her death in June 1760, but she returned to Croome in late July and died there on 30 September 1760; she was buried at Pirton church, in the adjacent parish, on 10 October. At the time a new family church—St Mary Magdalene at Croome d'Abitot—was being built on the Croome estate and after it was completed Lady Coventry's body was disinterred and reburied there, although there is no monument to her there. The cause of her death at the age of twenty-eight was rumoured to be lead poisoning, from the fashionable white cosmetic, ceruse, she used on her face, which was said to be ravaged by its effects. However, tuberculosis has also been thought responsible. In London in the summer shortly before her death she had received from the apothecary Daniel Graham, almost daily, medicines consistent with treatment for consumption, and in the autumn was attended by William Russell, the senior surgeon at Worcester Infirmary. In his Elegies (1761) William Mason included one on Lady Coventry and the Worcestershire historian T. R. Nash, who knew her well, admired 'the sweetness of her disposition and the goodness of her heart'. Lord Coventry married again in 1764.
- Walpole, Corr., vols. 9, 16, 20, 35, 37
- E. A. B. Barnard, ‘The Coventrys of Croome’, Transactions of the Worcestershire Historical Society, 20 (1943), 32–42
- J. Lane, ‘The furniture at Croome Court: the patronage of George William, 6th earl of Coventry’, Apollo, 145 (Jan 1997), 25–9
- The letters of William Shenstone, ed. M. Williams (1939)
- T. Nash, Collections for the history of Worcestershire, 1 (1781), 473–4
- parish register, London, St George's, Hanover Square, 1 March 1752 [marriage]
- parish register, Pirton, Worcestershire, 10 Oct 1760 [burial]
- The letters written by the late Right Honourable Lady Luxborough to William Shenstone, esq. (1775), 271
- The autobiography and correspondence of Mary Granville, Mrs Delany, ed. Lady Llanover, 1st ser., 3 (1861)
- priv. coll., family MSS
- J.-E. Liotard, pastel drawing, 1750–55, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam [see illus.]
- K. Read, pastel drawing, 1750–59, Inveraray Castle
- F. Cotes, oils, 1751, NG Ire.
- F. Cotes, pastel drawing, 1751, Inveraray Castle
- J. Macardell, mezzotint, 1753 (after G. Hamilton), Royal Collection
- R. Houston, group portrait, mezzotint, pubd 1756 (The three Gunning sisters), BM
- P. Cotes, miniature, 1757, Wallace Collection, London
- F. Cotes, portrait (of Maria Coventry?), priv. coll.
- G. Hamilton, oils, Inveraray Castle
- G. Hamilton, oils, Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire
- H. D. Hamilton, pastel drawing, Courtauld Inst.
- G. Hamilton?, portraits, priv. coll.
- J. Highmore, oils, Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire
- double portrait, conversation piece (with the earl of Coventry); Sothebys, 30 June 1948
- portrait (after Liotard), priv. coll.