Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806) was the most famous woman of her time, celebrated for her beauty, charisma, style and as a political campaigner. She lived at Devonshire House, opposite the Ritz Hotel, situated on the block formed by Piccadilly, Berkeley Street, Mayfair Place and Stratton Street.
At this time Devonshire House was a Palladian mansion (replaced by the present building in the 1920s, see below).
Lady Georgiana Spencer married William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire on 6 June 1774. She became a celebrated beauty, socialite and leader of a large circle of literary figures, Whig politicians, and numerous hangers-on.
Among her friends were Charles James Fox, Richard Brinsley Sheridan and Dr Johnson.
She was the acknowledged leader of the ‘ton’, the group of fashionable aristocratic ladies who frequented the Ranelagh Pleasure Gardens, the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and St James’s clubs.
The 'ton' pioneered towering hair arrangements, topped off by anything from a model ship to expensive ostrich feathers or an artificial aviary.
Georgiana introduced the Duke to his mistress and second wife-to-be, Lady Elizabeth Foster. ‘Bess’ was her best friend, and she tolerated the ménage-a-trois for many years whilst enjoying her own private liaisons.
Georgiana's marriage arrangements, her beauty and sense of style, and her gambling all gained her wide public notice. But she also gained fame and a measure of notoriety for her political campaigning: in the 1784 election she traded kisses for votes in support of Fox.
She wrote an autobiographical novel, The Sylph (1778), as well as songs and prose, and collaborated on literary work with Sheridan for the stage. She also published poems, including the long poem, ‘The Passage’, which was parodied by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in The Morning Post in December 1799.
Both Thomas Gainsborough (illustrated at top) and Sir Joshua Reynolds painted her. These portraits hang in the National Portrait Gallery.
Lady Diana Spencer, later Diana, Princess of Wales, was a direct descendant of Georgiana’s brother, the 2nd Earl Spencer.
In her novel Mrs Dalloway Virginia Woolf has Mrs Dalloway walk past Devonshire House in June 1923. By the time of the novel's publication, in 1925, the original mansion had been demolished and replaced by the building which now stands on the site.
The illustration below shows Devonshire House being demolished.
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