The term celebrity is used so commonly and universally in the twenty-first century that we rarely sit down to question what it actually means. This is something that historian and podcaster Greg Jenner found when writing his book, the popular history Dead Famous: An Unexpected History of Celebrity from Bronze Age to Silver Screen. Within this book Jenner attempts to set out both what a celebrity is, and what a celebrity isn’t. Jenner argues that a celebrity has to be ‘distinctive, recognisable and iconic’, that we need to be as interested in their personal life as we are their professional one, and finally he argues that their needs to be a commercialisation aspect or what Jenner terms a ‘micro-economy where other people can make money from them.’ The term celebrity is also most commonly associated with our modern age, our modern media and our modern technology. So, can Kitty Fisher be seen as a celebrity, both by the standards of today, and by her own society? If this is indeed the case, our question becomes: was she the first celebrity?
Kitty Fisher was a well-known courtesan, born in 1741 in London, dying in 1767 of what sources have described as the effect of lead-based cosmetics, just a year after her marriage to John Norris, son of the M.P. for Rye. Throughout her life, Kitty gathered fame and infamy throughout Europe (perpetuated through Cassanova’s 1763 account of her), remembered through the nursery rhyme, Lucy Locket
‘Lucy Locket lost her pocket,
Kitty Fisher found it;
But ne’er a penny was there in’t
Except the binding round it’
Perhaps the most difficult to argue when it comes to satisfying Jenners checklist is that Kitty Fisher was distinctive, recognisable and iconic. It is undoubtable that those in her circles recognised and knew her – newspapers printed articles which referred to ‘K—y F—r’, suggesting that she was so well known and recognisable that her whole name was not required to recognise her. It is also true that when she infamously fell off her horse in St James’ Park – an event which she arguably used to her advantage, capitulating her into fame – she was described by name as having given ‘favourable opportunity of viewing those charms which decency dictates should be hidden.’ Kitty Fisher was no doubt recognisable to many in London, so much so that according to historian Faramerez Dabhoiwala ‘she was so well known as to be regularly and casually referred to by poets, journalists and writers of all kinds’. But was she distinctive?
It appears that while the images of Kitty are distinctive and iconic, it is the image which is being prioritised as iconic rather than Fisher herself. Fisher was one of the preferred muses of Joshua Reynolds, but as Angela Rosenthal notes, many other women were painted by Reynolds in a similar pose. This pose is also an allusion to Cleopatra, using the dissolving pearl. In making Fisher a Cleopatra-esq character he is not creating an icon in her own rights but merely modelling Fisher on an existing icon. Although the dissolving pearl icon can be seen in a different light; Kitty Fisher once ingested a bank note, seeing it as an insulting payment method, and so the dissolving and consumption of the pearl could be seen as an allusion to Kitty’s own consumption of wealth. In later images, such as Kitty with the pet parrot, she is being presented more on her own terms, rather than in the image of another icon. It is also worth noting that at the same time as the painting, Fisher was rumoured to be having an affair with Reynolds, although this has not been proven.
All the portraits of Fisher also lack some form of likeness – they appear to be similar but more in a conventional late eighteenth-century way, and you would be forgiven for not recognising Fisher from some of the images below. That being said, there were particular motifs and items associated with Fisher – according to Marcia Pointon she was associated with diamonds, and she is frequently pictured with a bird. Fisher was undoubtedly recognisable, and perhaps in the way that she was unusual in her actions whilst still being quite conventional in her looks made her the perfect icon who could appeal to the many.
It is these actions which I shall next turn to when determining whether her personal life was of interest to people. The short answer is yes, unsurprisingly the people of London were highly interested in the private life of a famous courtesan embroiled in all of the scandal of the day. But what puts Kitty apart from the typical socialite and puts her into the category of celebrity is that people weren’t just interested in her private life, but she also commanded and directed their interest. She was arguably a PR agent of an unprecedented calibre. It has been argued that her most infamous life event, her falling off a horse, was calculated, so much so that it should be considered an eighteenth-century publicity stunt. According to Dabhoiwala, a fallen woman falling from her horse was ‘just too perfectly symbolic’, to the point that all of high society London was soon talking about the event. Fisher didn’t just stage the event, she also swiftly after went to Reynolds to get him to paint her.
The commodification of Fisher is probably the most surprising aspect of her life in the present day, especially as we don’t really have anything on this similar scale. According to Dabhoiwala, over the years Reynolds and Fisher took control of her image, and over ‘the space of just five or six years, perhaps as many as a dozen different prints of Kitty Fisher were punished.’ These were published in huge editions of three to four thousand copies at a time. Dabhoiwala describes Fisher as ‘a brilliant epitome of the nature of modern celebrity and of Kitty Fishers witty self-conscious manipulation of it.’ There was a marketplace for Kitty Fisher merchandise and Fisher and Reynolds truly capitalised on it. There were circular miniatures of Fisher in pocket watches, Kitty Fisher joke books, bonnets, lace and a ‘Kitty-Fisher’s Eye’ spotted waistcoat.’ Kitty Fisher, according to Rosenthal, was so celebrated due to ‘the magnetism Fisher possessed for women who sought to imitate her glamor and liberties.’ She was undoubtedly a commercial product, but of her own self-image, not the image projected onto her by anyone else.
Fisher was a celebrity, on a scale unprecedented – both in terms of her reach and in terms of her command of her own image. It is important to see Fisher, not as a courtesan under control of the whims of others, but as a businesswoman, commodifying herself in order to create her own self-image. Fisher undoubtedly satisfies the conditions of Greg Jenner’s celebrity test and more importantly is someone that we could all learn from in the present day – the self-assuredness and the independence of Fisher makes her not just a celebrity, but arguably more modern than some celebrities of the present day.
Written by Sophie Whitehead
Bourque, Kevin. ‘Heady Similitudes: Kitty Fisher, Mezzotint Culture, and Material Narratives of Celebrity, ca. 1750.’ Eighteenth-century studies 54, no. 2 (2021): 307–336.
Dabhoiwala, Faramerz. ‘Kitty Fisher: The Commodification of Celebrity.’ In The Material Cultures of Enlightenment Arts and Sciences, 263–265. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2016
Horse and Away to St. James’s Park or, A Trip for the Noontide Air Who Rides Fastest, Misss [sic] Kitty Fisher, or Her Gay Gallant. London: W[ritten an]d printed at Strawberry Hill, 1760
Mudge, Bradford. ‘‘Enchanting Witchery’: Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Portrait of Kitty Fisher as Cleopatra.’ Eighteenth-century life 40, no. 1 (2016): 32–58.
Pointon, Marcia. ‘The Lives of Kitty Fisher.’ British journal for eighteenth-century studies 27, no. 1 (2004): 77–.