Forget today’s celebrity icons. Paula Byrne looks at the first ever media frenzy for young actress and lover of the Prince of Wales, Mary Robinson, painted by Joshua Reynolds. To Coleridge she was ‘a woman of undoubted genius’, and she became the most famous woman in Britain. Her story, along with that of a few of her contemporaries, finds parallels with our own age.

The term celebrity first gained currency in the eighteenth century. It was an era when heroes and heroines were no longer saints or remote historical figures, but recognisable icons of a newer, brasher climate. Fame and renown were made instantaneous, as never before, by a rapidly expanding print industry. The proliferation of newspapers, journals and periodicals, combined with the dissemination of beautifully produced prints and satirical caricatures, fuelled an insatiable public curiosity about the lives of the rich and famous. Then, as now, press gossip concerned itself with salacious details of the private lives of stars whether actresses, politicians, royal mistresses, or war heroes. All of them helped to sell newspapers.

Many biographers claim that their subject was the very first “celebrity”. Perhaps the strongest case can be made for Sir Joshua Reynolds’s friend David Garrick  the man who transformed the theatre world, acting on stage with unprecedented naturalism, producing behind the scenes with prodigious energy and, above all, conferring on his profession an unprecedented respectability. As one of his recent biographers has suggested, he was the first international “megastar”. After his debut in Richard III, he became famous almost overnight. Dr Johnson said that no actor before Garrick made so much money, or achieved such an eminent position in society.”

Garrick had a genius for self-publicity. He owned shares in various newspapers and his friendships with journalists and editors ensured favourable reviews for his plays. He also cultivated the friendship of portraitists: Reynolds painted “King David” in a variety of roles and allegorically as Garrick between Tragedy and Comedy 1760–1. And he encouraged his actresses to be painted in favourite theatrical roles, knowing that it was valuable publicity. One of his protégées was a young actress called Mary Robinson, who rose to prominence when she began an affair with the young Prince of Wales. Prince George first fell in love with her when he saw her playing the part of Perdita in Garrick’s version of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. She became known as Perdita and was for a while the most famous woman in England. Wherever she went – the shops, the park, the assembly rooms, the pleasure gardens – crowds followed, eager to catch a glimpse of her.

In an age when most women were confined to the domestic sphere, Perdita was a public face. She was gazed at on the stage and she gazed back from the walls of the Royal Academy and the studios of the men who painted her, Reynolds above all. The royal love affair also brought her image to the eighteenth-century equivalent of the television screen: the caricatures displayed in print shop windows.

Reynolds’s pocket book for the early months of 1782 records fourteen appointments with Mrs Robinson for sittings during which he executed his first portrait of her. On three successive appointments, another sitter was present: the hero of the American War of Independence, Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton. Known as “Butcher” Tarleton, he was – largely by way of his reckless tactics and savagery in combat – one of the few Englishmen to have emerged with any admiration from the disastrous loss of the colonies. He paraded through the fashionable West End of London, proudly showing the hand from which two fingers had been blown off in battle.

The cream of society mingled in Reynolds’s studio. On moving into Leicester Fields he had built an extension in the form of an octagonal painting room that was “a splendid gallery for the exhibition of his works, and a commodious and elegant room for his sitters”. Open house would be held for the viewing of new works, and on sitting days three or four subjects were often present simultaneously. Perdita also coincided with the chubby cheeked four-year-old George Brummell, or Beau Brummell as he was later to become known. Perhaps it was his “Infant’s cherub mien” that she remembered in her poem on Sir Joshua. The centrepiece of the room was the sitter’s chair or “throne”, raised eighteen inches above the floor and on casters for ease of movement. Reynolds himself never sat when painting, but stood at his favourite mahogany easel. A screen covered in red and yellow reflected light on the subject’s face, while a mirror was arranged so that he or she could observe the artist at work on the canvas. He had an extensive collection of clothes and props, including a pet macaw that had the run of the house. Perdita and Tarleton brought along their own dashing trademark garments. There is always a peculiar intensity in the encounter between portrait painter and sitter. On the day that Mrs Robinson and the colonel met, the atmosphere must have been electric. They would almost immediately become lovers, beginning a tempestuous relationship that lasted for fifteen years. For most of that time, their every move was reported in the press, very much in the manner of a modern celebrity couple.

In March 1782 it was announced that the forthcoming annual Royal Academy exhibition would include no fewer than four portraits of Perdita: full-lengths by Reynolds and Gainsborough, and two miniatures by Richard Cosway. She had also been painted around that time by George Romney. Reynolds exhibited her and Tarleton under the titles Portrait of a Lady and Portrait of an Officer (both 1782). She is in the pose of Rubens’s wife, a prototype often employed by eighteenth-century British artists. Her dress is of dark blue silk with a low-cut neck and a wide embroidered collar. Her sweeping, wide-brimmed hat with ostrich feathers is set over powdered curls. Her blue eyes and dimples are prominent, and there is a thin black ribbon round her throat, setting off the whiteness of her neck and bosom.

The colonel is portrayed wearing his trademark boots with overturns, tan trousers and green coat with white edging, though the feathers in his cap are black instead of the customary white swan’s. The stumps of the two fingers are clearly visible. He is posed as if in the midst of battle, coolly adjusting his sword and thereby – in a classical allusion typical of Reynolds – assuming an attitude reminiscent of an antique statue that was believed to represent the Roman warrior Cincinnatus. The head of the colonel’s horse is visible at the edge of the painting. The noble beast itself may indeed have sat – or rather stood – for Sir Joshua. The painting now hangs in the rotunda of the east wing of the National Gallery in London.

The painting of Perdita remained in Reynolds’s studio until his death. It may have been commissioned, but not paid for. An alternative possibility is that it was produced as a mutual publicity deal, with the intention that it should remain in the studio as a showpiece. Its presence there meant that it could readily be copied: it was engraved several times over and copies in oils were made by other artists, including John Hoppner, George Romney and an anonymous miniaturist. Perdita’s image was a commodity in great demand: the Witt Library in London now holds photographs or descriptions of about 70 paintings of her.

Reynolds was acutely aware of the commercial potential of the huge expansion of the market for engraved prints in the late eighteenth century. He sometimes painted famous beauties and actresses specifically with a view to the reproductions that would be made from them. It may not be by chance that his portrait of Perdita employs a high proportion of black and white. This meant that it would translate well to the monochrome medium of engraving. A stipple engraving by William Dickinson duly circulated in very large numbers. Her very pose became influential: Edward Burney copied it, in mirror image, for his portrait of his cousin, the novelist Fanny Burney.

As well as fine mezzotints of celebrities, cheaper copies could be had for sixpence plain, or one shilling coloured. A print seller’s catalogue of 1784 noted that a variety of choice examples was always kept ready framed and glazed, available at the lowest prices.

Reductions of Reynolds’s images were also made for biographies and frontispiece portraits of authors. Prints after Reynolds were even available as household objects: his portrait of Tarleton appeared on a transfer-printed milk jug and some of his images of female figures were copied on to fans. His portrait of another actress, Kitty Fisher, was miniaturised in a print to decorate a watch case. There was, then, a fluid interchange between high art and low. Reynolds’s originals were crowd-pullers, both in his studio and at the annual Royal Academy exhibitions in Somerset House on the Strand. At the same time, shoppers could sift through a vast stock of engraved images in the print shops – and laugh at the caricatures displayed in the windows.

Portrait prints and caricatures catered in different ways for the public’s avid interest in celebrity. Caricatures frequently alluded knowingly to the postures of popular portraits. The images of Mary Robinson that began to appear in print shop windows gave satirical illustrators every opportunity to capitalise on a ready market for images lampooning the current politicians, royals and actresses.

On 20 August 1782, a new caricature appeared in the window of Elizabeth D’Achery’s print shop in St James’s Street, a few doors from Brooks’s Club and a few streets from both the home of Robinson and the lodgings of Banastre Tarleton. Entitled The Thunderer, it was one of the earliest works of James Gillray, who would become the most brilliant and scabrous caricaturist in English history. The Thunderer is Tarleton and the picture is a parody of Reynolds’s portrait of him, with both posture and dress closely replicated. His crotch, however, is greatly enlarged to suggest that he was much better endowed than the Prince of Wales. The colonel’s facial expression has been changed from the alertness and ardour suggested by Reynolds into a contemptuous sneer. He is transposed from the American battlefield to a London tavern. The sign above the door, inscribed “THE WHIRLIGIG Alamode Beef, hot every Night”, takes the form of Mary Robinson impaled on a long pole, with legs spread wide apart and completely exposed breasts. A face on the bracket that holds the pole grins lasciviously at the sight of the exposed thighs above her stocking tops and the delights beyond. The whirligig was a large cage suspended on a pivot, in which army prostitutes were hoisted for punishment. Such was the price of fame.

At the height of her celebrity, Perdita was struck down by severe rheumatic fever, which paralysed her from the waist down. She could no longer dance at balls and dazzle in her opera box. But with extraordinary fortitude she remade herself as a more sedentary kind of celebrity: a best-selling poet and novelist. Sir Joshua remained one of her most devoted and loyal friends. She regarded him as the greatest artist of the age and duly paid tribute to him in her first major poem, Ainsi va le Monde (Thus goes the world). The lines are shaped by the memory of sitting for Reynolds: the tinted lip, melting eye, auburn curls, dimpled smile and “veil transparent on the breast of snow” are her own. Fittingly enough, the verses end with a rhyme on “celebrate thy name” and “wings of Fame”:

Reynolds, ‘tis thine with magic skill to trace
The perfect semblance of exterior grace;
Thy hand, by Nature guided, marks the line
That stamps perfection on the form divine.
‘Tis thine to tint the lip with rosy die,
To paint the softness of the melting eye;
With auburn curls luxuriantly display’d,
The ivory shoulders polish’d fall to shade;
To deck the well-turn’d arm with matchless grace,
To mark the dimpled smile on Beauty’s face:
The task is thine, with cunning hand to throw
The veil transparent on the breast of snow:
The Statesman’s thought, the Infant’s cherub mien,
The Poet’s fire, the Matron’s eye serene,
Alike with animated lustre shine
Beneath thy polish’d pencil’s touch divine.
As Britain’s Genius glories in thy Art,
Adores thy virtues, and reveres thy heart,
Nations unborn shall celebrate thy name,
And waft thy mem’ry on the wings of Fame.