The portrait of Lady Maria Conyngham by Sir Thomas Lawrence (1824) is a favourite of mine. It was a favourite of George IV too and hung for a time in his bedroom in St. James’s Palace. It is rare to see a sitter’s teeth in portraits from this period.
During the Regency period a natural look became fashionable for young ladies. The beauty ideal of this era was a smooth, white complexion with a hint of a rosy glow and soft red lips. It was thought that this look could be achieved with personal qualities like temperance, exercise and cleanliness but as any woman knows cosmetics can be discreetly used to achieve a “natural” glow.
Lady Selina Meade by Thomas Lawrence, 1819.
Homemade cosmetics were very popular during the Regency and recipes were found in magazines, and etiquette and housekeeping books, and ingredients generally consisted of things found in the home or easily purchased from the chemist.
It was now known that lead and mercury were harmful substances, and it was advised by many that these ingredients should be avoided in favour of vegetable ingredients.
Ready made products could be purchased from the chemist perfumers but at this time in history there was no legislation for the safety of cosmetics. Any ingredients could be used and claims made about a product’s effectiveness.
The cosmetics available to women depended on their social standing. Middle- and upper-class women would have access to homemade and purchased cosmetics. A lady’s maid would be responsible for making her lady’s lotions and cosmetics.
Great emphasis was placed on a young lady’s complexion. Freckles, suntan, blemishes or wrinkles were dealt with by a variety of lotions. Gowland’s Lotion was a famous preparation used for the treatment of various skin concerns, but not the safest option, as the lotion contained mercuric chloride – a corrosive and toxic acid powerful enough to remove the top layer of skin.
Sun tanned skin was associated with the working classes, so a middle- or upper-class woman would try to not go brown or burn in the sun. Sun tans and freckles were also associated with health issues, like bad bile, so it was not good form all round to have a tan.
Makeup for the face came in a white loose powder form made from a variety of white pigments, from harmless crushed pearl, cornstarch, rice powder and talc to the harmful such as lead!
Red pigments used in rouge came from powdered substances, like vermilion (from the mineral cinnabar and toxic), carmine (derived from cochineal scale insects), alkanna root (plant), red sandalwood, or saffron. If a softer colour was required, the red powders were mixed with white powders like talc or hair powder. To create a rouge pomade, the red powders were mixed with melted fats or waxes and left to set in a pot.
Rosy red lips were created with the use of lip pomade or salve. These were mainly made at home from the same red powders used on the cheeks, mixed into a fat or wax base. Lip pomades could also be purchased from chemists.
Burnt cork or the sooty residue from a candle flame was used to produce a black colour for use on brows and eye lashes. To prevent the colour coming off easily, it was mixed with something that helped set it, like frankincense, mastix or resin. Elderberries could also be rubbed onto the lashes/brows to darken them.
Lady Elizabeth Conyngham by Thomas Lawrence, 1822.
Bright eyes were encouraged by using eye drops and eye washes. Eye makeup was a “no no” for young ladies – eyes were for seeing with and conveying one’s inner beauty and health.
Brows were either left fairly natural with no really obvious plucking going on, although undesirable hairs could be removed and brows subtly shaped.
Removal of superfluous hair on the face and arms was popular. The first patent for a depilatory was taken out in 1804 and there were various recipes for homemade solutions. The Art of Beauty declares:
Superfluous hairs, also, which frequently grow on the arms, and are so injurious to their appearance, must be removed.
Oral hygiene was poor but there were dental products available. Toothpicks were commonly used. Made of bone, ivory, quills, wood or various metals, their use was quite fashionable until the Victorian era when they were viewed as uncouth.
Toothbrushes were commercially available. Made from natural stiff bristles with ivory, bone or wooden handles, they were not necessarily widely used. The poor would not be in possession of a toothbrush, but could clean their teeth using a variety of methods like using a cloth and salt, or chewing on a stick. The rich also used twigs made from the roots of plants like marshmallow or licorice, keeping a supply in a purpose-made root box.
Tooth powder was an abrasive product made from things like ground coral, eggshell, chalk or gypsum, mixed with an astringent like salt, shaved soap or myrrh. To deal with bad breath, breath-freshening tablets were popular and kept in a small cachou box. These little breath sweets were made with fragrant ingredients like musk, cardamom, ambergris, licorice, essence of violet, essence of rose, or oil of cinnamon.
Thomas Lawrence, Self-portrait, 1788
Sir Thomas Lawrence PRA FRS (13 April 1769 – 7 January 1830) was a leading English portrait painter and president of the Royal Academy.Lawrence was a child prodigy. He was born in Bristol and began drawing in Devizes, where his father was an innkeeper. At the age of ten, having moved to Bath, he was supporting his family with his pastel portraits. At eighteen he went to London and soon established his reputation as a portrait painter in oils, receiving his first royal commission, a portrait of Queen Charlotte, in 1790.
He stayed at the top of his profession until his death, aged 60, in 1830. Self-taught, he was a brilliant draughtsman and known for his gift of capturing a likeness, as well as his virtuoso handling of paint. He became an associate of the Royal Academy in 1791, a full member in 1794, and president in 1820. In 1810 he acquired the generous patronage of the Prince Regent, was sent abroad to paint portraits of allied leaders for the Waterloo chamber at Windsor Castle, and is particularly remembered as the Romantic portraitist of the Regency. Lawrence’s love affairs were not happy (his tortuous relationships with Sally and Maria Siddons became the subject of several books) and, in spite of his success, he spent most of life deep in debt.
Sally Siddons (1775-1803)
He never married. At his death, Lawrence was the most fashionable portrait painter in Europe. His reputation waned during Victorian times, but has been partially restored in more recent ones.
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