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12 Sept 2018

Lady Mary Pierrepont

Written by Victoria Lambert
Lady Mary Pierrepont
As Project Reveal finishes the inventory at Falkland Palace, we take a closer look at an object which epitomises what this project is all about.

In the busy Drawing Room, which is full of visitors in the summer and still used by the Keeper’s family during the winter, sits a small portrait of Lady Mary Pierrepont. Surrounded by the large portraits of kings and queens that adorn the walls of this room, she goes somewhat unnoticed. Whilst we were inventorying the room I remember seeing her name, which was all the information given about the painting. For a moment I wondered who she was, before I resumed recording, measuring, labelling and then moving on. Now that I’ve had the chance to go back and look at it again, I’ve learned that she was an important, intelligent and intriguing woman, a direct ancestor of the Crichton-Stuart family who’ve been the Palace’s Keepers since 1887.

portrait of Lady Mary Pierrepont
The painting after Sir Godfrey Kneller’s portrait of Lady Mary Pierrepont, Falkland Palace (52.698)

Lady Mary Pierrepont, later Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, was born in London in 1689. She was an aristocrat, letter writer, traveller and poet. As a child she taught herself Latin and by the age of 15 had written two volumes full of poetry and prose. In this painting, a retouched reproduction of a 1710 oil painting by Sir Godfrey Kneller, we see her as a young woman, depicted as a shepherdess, innocent and vulnerable. It’s a beautiful portrait but a slightly misleading depiction, because Lady Mary was a formidable woman in her own right.

Shortly after sitting for this painting she married Edward Wortley Montagu. Mary’s father did not approve of Edward as a suitor and so they were forced to elope. After they married, Edward became Junior Commissioner of the Treasury, meaning the couple moved to London and mingled with high society. They counted themselves among the company of both King George I and the Prince of Wales (later George II). Mary was no stranger to scandal – some of her short satirical poems about court life were circulated without her permission. One was deemed as being an attack on Caroline, Princess of Wales which led to some hostility, even though it seems that this was not her intent.

In 1713 Mary lost her brother to smallpox, and in 1715 she herself contracted the disease but was lucky to survive. These experiences would prove influential in her work later in life. After Edward was appointed British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, the couple and their young son moved to Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1716, where they remained for two years, adding a daughter, Mary, to their family. This daughter would grow up to marry John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute and prime minister between 1762–63. Mary, Countess of Bute was the great-great-grandmother of the 3rd Marquess of Bute, the man who restored Falkland Palace after taking over the stewardship, and whose family still live in the palace today.

John Crichton-Stuart, 3rd Marquess of Bute, Falkland Palace (52.585)
John Crichton-Stuart, 3rd Marquess of Bute, Falkland Palace (52.585)

Whilst in Constantinople Lady Mary wrote about the perceptions and misconceptions of religion, traditions and the treatment of women in the Ottoman Empire. She was able to gain access to spaces that men couldn’t, and she shared amusing and interesting stories of her time there. She also discovered how smallpox was tackled in the Ottoman Empire, and on her return to England she introduced and advocated for smallpox inoculation. She stood by her belief in the treatment by having her five-year-old son inoculated in 1718, and her daughter in 1721. Initially, she was met by resistance and hostility from professionals who thought it was a folk remedy, but this inoculation paved the way for vaccinations the likes of which we still use today.

Later in life, Lady Mary continued to travel extensively across Europe. She frequently wrote home to her daughter, now in Scotland, with whom she discussed philosophy, politics, literature and education for girls.

Be sure to take a closer look at Lady Mary Pierrepont’s portrait when you’re next at Falkland Palace. It may be smaller in size compared to the other grand paintings in the room, but the woman it depicts was a prolific writer, an unashamed intellectual and an inspiring individual.

Project Reveal will result in an updated database with high-quality images and unique object numbers for every item in the Trust’s material culture collections. Six regionally based project teams, supported by experienced project managers, will work across all of our properties with collections to complete the inventory in 18 months from July 2017 until December 2018.

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