Deadly Makeup of the 18th Century —- Maria, The Countess of Coventry and Venetian Ceruse.
Maria Gunning was perhaps the most beautiful woman in Georgian Era Britain, becoming one of the most famous socialites and hostesses of her age. Born to a dirt poor family in 1733, she made a life as an actress until she married the 6th Earl of Coventry in 1752, becoming a member of the nobility and upper class. Along with her talent, wit, and intelligence, her incredible beauty made her a superstar of mid 18th century Britain.
Unfortunately her quest for even greater beauty would ultimately lead to her untimely demise. Like any fashionable upper class person of the day, Maria used a lot of makeup. During the 18th century very pale skin was seen as especially attractive and fashionable. Women (and men) would coat their faces, necks, and chests with pale white makeup to create an almost porcelain look. This fashion trend dated all the way back to 16th century Tudor times and was especially made famous by Queen Elizabeth I. The most popular pale makeup of the time was a white powder called Venetian Ceruse, which again can be traced back to the 16th Century. While the popular makeup was instrumental in creating the pale look popular from the 16th - 18th centuries, Venetian Ceruse had a very lethal ingredient; lead.
To make Venetian Ceruse powdered lead was mixed with vinegar which created a milky white powder. While today lead is considered a very lethal toxin, back in the 18th century the dangers of lead were very often overlooked. Maria used Venetian Ceruse heavily, leading to several health problems. As the lead was absorbed into her skin it would have caused swelling and eventually open sores. This created a deadly circle as the Countess used more and more ceruse to cover the sores and blemshes, thus leading to her ever deteriorating health. Eventually the makeup ate away the skin of her face, permanently marring her beauty. She also suffered hair loss, tooth loss, muscle paralysis, loss of short term memory, and dementia. After 8 years of chronic lead poisoning, Maria Coventry died of blood poisoning on the 30th of September 1760, aged 27.
The Countess of Coventry was not the only victim of fashion as many other women (and men) died from using makeup that contained poisons such as lead, arsenic, and mercury. It is thought that Queen Elizabeth I herself, who often posed for portraits wearing copious amounts of Venetian Ceruse, may have also suffered from the effects of lead poisoning. The makeup was also responsible for the short lifespans of many “boy actors” during the lifetime of Shakespeare. By the late 18th century the pale look went out of style and Venetian Ceruse went by the wayside. Today there are strict rules governing the safety and contents of makeup.