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  Thomas Rowlandson, Six Stages of Mending a Face (29th May 1792)

In the eighteenth century, a pretty face and sharp wit could help a woman to go far (Harriette Wilson, take a bow), and at least one of these, in theory, could be manufactured. It was allowed that “women study dress only to add to their beauty”, but although their admirers undoubtedly saw the benefits of their meticulous toilette, they also lamented its drawbacks. The pain of a husband waiting for hours for his wife to emerge butterfly-like from her room – coiffed and radiant – for a social occasion, no doubt endures.

But, even worse, many feared the terrible dangers of an outwardly beautiful woman, whatever her social background. The artifice of young prostitutes, concealing hideous inner corruption and riddled with disease, seducing and ruining their lovers, was an oft-repeated cautionary tale for young rakes. In 1731, Jonathan Swift’s “Corinna, pride of Drury Lane” provided a particularly unsettling example. Hideous wretches on the prowl for a wealthy husband could deceive an unwitting gentleman into matrimony. The prospect of discovering your new wife to be a stinking, deformed creature on the wedding night was such a common concern that in 1770 the following legislation was apparently proposed (but not passed) in parliament:

An Act to protect men from being beguiled into marriage by false adornments. All women, of whatever rank, age, profession or degree, whether virgins, maids or widows, that shall, from and after such Act, impose upon, seduce or betray into matrimony, any of His Majesty’s subjects, by the scents, paints, cosmetic washes, artificial teeth, false hair, Spanish wool, iron stays, hoops, high-heeled shoes and bolstered hips, shall incur the penalty of the law in force against witchcraft and like misdemeanours and that the marriage upon conviction shall stand null and void.

Rowlandson’s Six Stages of Mending a Face gives a cruel interpretation of the Georgian woman’s cosmetic routine. Alluding to the hook-nosed, notorious gambling-house keeper and rouge-abuser Lady Sarah Archer, it shows how even the most hideous of old crones could transform herself into a ravishing young belle. Making use of a tumbling a mass of false hair and a sparkling new set of teeth, she paints her face with a hare’s foot. The mask she holds in the final picture serves as a cautionary tale to any man with amorous intentions.

Ladies, take note. Unsuspecting men, beware. A false eye and some particularly supportive underwear can make a world of difference.

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