Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Kitty Fisher: 18th Century Shebug

The definition of a ‘courtesan’ is a woman prostitute, especially one whose clients are members of a royal court or men of high social standing. 

Synonyms are concubine, doxy, paramour, kept woman, mistress, fancy woman, and, of course, Shebug.

An example of an 18th century Shebug is Kitty Fisher. She morphed from milliner to ‘classy’ prostitute. Kitty she took pride in her work and did it well, down to handling her own marketing. 

She turned an embarrassing moment in St James’ Park that left little to the imagination into the publicity stunt of the century. Kitty’s fall from her horse made every headline and was featured in satirical prints. Songs were even written about the event!

In publishing pamphlets entitled ‘Kitty F—r’s Merry Thoughts’, Ms Fisher not only advertised her charms, but also her ability for clever conversation.

Ms Fisher was reported to have eaten a thousand pound note on her buttered bread such was her voracious appetite for all things luxurious.

Though dead for centuries, this Shebug refuses to vanish. The nursery rhyme, Lucy’s Locket reads as follows:

Lucy Locket lost her pocket,
Kitty Fisher found it;
Not a penny was there in it,
Only a ribbon ‘round it.

Great portraitists, like Sir Joshua Reynolds (first president of the Royal Academy) and Nathaniel Hone, immortalized her on canvas.

I came across this Shebug depicted by a contemporary artist, Mark Hampson, last week at the Royal Academy. The exhibition is called ‘Almost Real Art: A Satirical Archaeology of the RA Collections and Library’.

Here, the muse is featured repeatedly alongside the four roundels painted by the most distinguished Angelica Kauffman, one of the two female founding members of the RA. The banner painted at the top reads ‘Kitty Fisher’s All Ladies Academy For Female Arts’.

It goes to show how the power of good PR can be timeless!

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