A portrait of beauty, but be warned: Their looks are toxic
In her regular column, Dorothy Blundell takes a sideways look at the collections of The Bowes Museum where she is a volunteer
BEAUTY is in the eye of the beholder, so they say. Lucky, then, the women whose beauty was in the eye – and brush strokes – of portrait artists: their looks will never fade.
In fact, before the 18th century the link between oil painting and face painting was physical as well as aesthetic as ingredients were similar. Women mixed their own lotions just as artists would prepare their paints. But beauty came at a high price, for many of the substances they used were highly toxic.
The fashionable look in the 18th century was pale and interesting... like the sitter in The Bowes Museum’s Portrait of a Lady by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792). Being pale showed you were rich enough to avoid working in the fields, getting sunburnt and windblown.
And if you needed extra pallor, or to disguise the effects of age or disease, you could always try rice powder, vinegar, hartshorn or gum arabic – all relatively harmless. Not so benign was lead. The metal was steeped in vinegar for weeks and then dried and pounded into a flaky white powder. It was so popular for its opaque qualities that its use continued despite knowing it caused the wearer to lose their hair, teeth and even their life.
It is hoped that such misfortune did not befall the unidentified Lady in Reynolds’ painting, which was bought by John Bowes in 1840 for £36. In her case, it is thought that the glazes applied by the artist to enhance her complexion have faded, resulting in her washed-out appearance.
About 100 years earlier, Sir Anthony Van Dyck painted Olivia Porter, a lady-in-waiting to Queen Henrietta Maria, whose face appears a picture of health. Perhaps she used rouge to achieve such a glow? At that time, cheeks were reddened by adding red colouring to white lead or by using Spanish paper which was dyed red to rub on the skin. Lips were reddened with fruit juice or cochineal (squashed bugs). Later rouge concoctions might contain sandalwood, brazilwood, safflowers or red wine, but the most popular – and poisonous – included vermilion made from the mineral cinnabar, also known as mercury sulphide.
The author of a 1760 work, The Art of Beauty, warns: “It is very dangerous; using it frequently, wearers may lose their teeth, acquire a stinking breath, and excite a copious salivation” (in other words, mercury poisoning).
The museum has a second portrait of Olivia displayed in a specially commissioned frame that depicts yet another potentially poisonous beauty treatment – viper wine.
The carved and gilded frame shows a flask of the drink which was the 17th century equivalent of Botox.
Drinking the mixture of alcohol and venomous snake meant cheeks and lips would be plump and faces numbed, making you look young and beautiful... or, quite possibly, dead.
For Josephine Bowes, applying thick, greasy stage make-up would have been routine in her acting career before marrying John. We know she admired Empress Eugenie, her direct contemporary, and tried to emulate her style. By this time, a more natural look was fashionable and the heavy face paints were consigned to “ladies of the night”.
Reports suggest that the empress was never one to indulge in a lengthy toilette and cared little about the fuss surrounding her beauty. She was, however, the star customer of Pierre-Francois-Pascal Guerlain, a perfumer and purveyor of smelling salts, who founded Guerlain in 1828 in Paris.
The empress had radiant skin and inspired many beauty products, such as Eugenie’s Secret of Beauty and Creme Imperatrice. Whether Josephine bought any of these is not recorded.
We do know that by way of health treatment rather than beauty regime, she took baths of “coal-black acid” (sulphur baths made from a solution of potassium sulphide) which, according to Streatlam visitor Augustus Hare, “refreshes her system but leaves her nails black”.
He also described her as having “painted her underlids with belladonna”.
This poisonous plant with its dark berries is so called after the “beautiful women” of Renaissance Italy, who used it to enlarge the pupils of their eyes, and so be more alluring.
In England, Lady Catherine Lucy Wilhelmina Stanhope, only daughter of the 4th Earl of Stanhope, was widely regarded as the most beautiful woman at court.
She served as a maid of honour at Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1838 and was a bridesmaid at her wedding to Prince Albert two years later.
Her portrait, painted by Lawrence Alma-Tadema in 1882, shows her to still be of striking looks at the age of 63.
Her second husband, Harry George Vane Powlett, the 4th Duke of Cleveland, was a contemporary of John Bowes.
Finally, among many women who grace the walls of the museum is one clearly dressed for a party. She has dark looks, pale skin and a delicate cupid’s bow mouth which any lipstick advertiser would sell their soul for.
Her hairstyle is simple and adorned with a headdress of ivy. The overall effect is elegant and compelling. The painting, called La Sortie du Bal (Leaving the Ball), by French painter Joseph-Desire Court, is one of three Court paintings bought by John and Joséphine in 1866. Go and behold it – and other beauties – in the picture galleries for yourself.