Gunning, Maria (1732–60), afterwards countess of Coventry , society beauty, eldest of the four daughters of John Gunning of Castlecoote, Co. Roscommon, and Bridget Gunning (née Bourke), daughter of the 6th Viscount Bourke of Mayo, was born at Hemingford Grey, near St Ives, Huntingdonshire. She and her sister Elizabeth (see below) were considered to be the most beautiful women of their generation. Brought up in Ireland from 1741, the Gunnings divided their time between Roscommon and Dublin, where as teenagers they rapidly made an impression. Much has been made of the Gunnings’ shortage of money: accounts by Horace Walpole suggest that the sisters were forced to consider a career on the stage, while varying reports refer to their borrowing clothes from the stage manager Thomas Sheridan (qv) and actress Peg Woffington (qv) before being presented at Dublin castle in 1748. Their fortunes improved in 1750 when Mrs Gunning was granted a pension of £150 by the lord lieutenant, facilitating their move to London, where they took the city by storm.
While their beauty won them undoubted acclaim, Maria's indiscretion and stupidity (she is remembered as telling George II she most wanted to see a coronation in London) also provoked comment; notwithstanding these shortcomings and the sisters’ lack of a fortune both found husbands within the ranks of the nobility. In March 1752 Maria married George, 6th earl of Coventry, with whom she had one son and four daughters. Although she was not a social success in Paris, Maria's popularity in England continued, to the extent that the king provided her with a guard after she was mobbed in Hyde Park while out walking in June 1759. She is thought to have destroyed her health by the persistent use of white lead as a cosmetic; she died of tuberculosis on 1 October 1760 at her residence at Croome, Worcestershire, and was buried at nearby Pirton church. Her portrait was painted by Francis Cotes, Gavin Hamilton, and Catherine Read.
Maria's sister, Elizabeth Gunning (1733–90), courtier, was also probably born at Hemingford Grey. On 14 February 1752 she secretly married James Hamilton, 6th duke of Hamilton, with whom she later had a daughter and two sons. When she was presented at court soon after her marriage, the demand to see her was so great that the assembled nobles climbed on chairs and tables to get a good view. Considered the more reserved and sensible of the sisters, Elizabeth founded a charity school for girls on her husband's estate in Hamilton, Scotland. Having been widowed in January 1758, the following year she married Colonel John Campbell, later marquess of Lorne and from 1770 5th duke of Argyll, with whom she had three sons and two daughters. Her health was thought to be failing at the time of her sister's death, but she recovered during a trip to the continent, and in August 1761 she was chosen as lady of the bedchamber to Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, George III's bride. She was among those who escorted the princess to England, and though the women are thought to have got on well initially the queen later became fiercely jealous of Elizabeth.
In March 1768 she provoked popular animosity during the celebrations to mark the election of John Wilkes as MP for Middlesex when she refused to illuminate Argyll House in London. As a result her home was bombarded for over three hours by his angry supporters. Her claims on the Douglas estate on behalf of her eldest son resulted in a lengthy legal battle, which she lost in 1769. The case received considerable public attention and inspired Boswell, whom she famously snubbed during his visit with Samuel Johnson to Inveraray castle in 1773, to write his novel Dorando. Johnson, in reference to her titles as duchess of Hamilton and Brandon and of Argyll, nicknamed her ‘the duchess with the three tails’; in 1776 she added the title Baroness Hamilton of Hameldon, held in her own right, to this list. Retiring from her court position in 1784, after a lengthy period in southern France she returned to London, where she died of tuberculosis on 20 December 1790. She was buried at the collegiate church of Kilmun in Argyllshire. Her portrait was painted by, among others Francis Cotes, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Gavin Hamilton, and Catherine Read.