Have you ever taken a rapid, probably shallow breath, and said, “I feel like my hair is on fire.”? It isn’t, of course. It’s the same hair you’ve always had. It still sits on your head, and the flames that seem real to you are entirely invisible.
You might be interested to find out that you are not alone, and the sensation is not even a new one. For example, check out the 18th century print on the left. This is a caricature by James Gillray depicting Lady Mount-Edgcumbe, one of Faro’s Ladies. When I entered the term “hair on fire” into the Wikimedia search box, this is one of the few illustrations to appear. Strange to discover such a common phrase has almost no pictures.
Of course, I immediately wanted to know more about Lady Mount-Edgcumbe. What had she done to inspire such an unflattering portrait? Immediately, I stopped thinking about fiery hair and started an impromptu investigation into Lady Mount-Edgcumbe.
Emma Gilbert Edgcumbe, the 1st Lady Mount-Edgcumbe
Emma Gilbert (1729-1807) appears to have been the only daughter of John Gilbert, a churchman who was Archbishop of York at the time of her marriage to George Edgcumbe in 1761. It’s worth noting that York is in the north of England and Emma’s new husband’s estate was in Cornwall in the south. However, Gilbert’s residence was at Twickenham, an area near London.
Emma was 32 years old when she married George Edgcumbe, 1st Earl of Mount Edgcumbe in 1761. Her new husband was seven years younger than she. George had a distinguished naval career before becoming a member of Parliament and holding a number of prominent offices. He became Earl of Mount Edgcumbe in 1789. The couple had one child, a son.
Emma, like many aristocratic Whig women of the time, was an inveterate gambler. Though perhaps not the most notorious, Emma was one of Faro’s Ladies, also known as Faro’s Daughters. These women sponsored faro games in their homes, as willing to lose a fortune on the turn of a card as any male gambler at White’s.
Reformers charged that female gamblers betrayed their sex by spending their nights at the gaming tables at the expense of producing children. Clearly such women were a threat to moral order, and an easy target for James Gillray’s artistic doodles.
Emma had another idiosyncrasy. She had a pet pig named Cupid who went with her everywhere and joined her at the dinner table. Sources note that Emma called Cupid her true friend.
The breed, now known as the Cornish black pigs, is traced back to the 18th century when two boats of all-black pigs exported from China docked at both Cornwall and East Anglia to introduce the pigs. Subsequent encounters with local pig populations created the modern breed.
While we don’t know Cupid’s exact origins, Emma had plenty of space to accommodate him until he died in 1770, plunging Emma into substantial grief. Emma placed Cupid in a golden casket and erected a 30-foot high Neo-classical obelisk on a hill at the outskirts of Plymouth. In the mid-19th century, a folly replaced the obelisk. Whether builders found a golden casket is unrecorded.
Upon hearing of Cupid’s death, John Wolcot, who wrote under the name Peter Pindar, penned a satirical poem
O, dry that tear so round and big
Nor waste in signs your precious wind
Death only takes a single pig
Your Lord and Son are left behind
Lady Mount-Edgcumbe & the Frog Dinner Service
And, as noted above, Gillray depicted the grieving Lady Mount-Edgcumbe as an unfeeling, rich, aristocratic witch, an identity further connected by the frog at her feet (bottom right), which relates to Mt. Edgcumbe. This natural setting was one of 1,222 English scenes depicted on a 50-place Frog Dinner Service Josiah Wedgwood produced for Catherine the Great of Russia. Catherine commissioned the dinner service for her summer palace that was surrounded by a frog marsh, and every dish had the image of a frog in a place of honor.
One thing I enjoy about putting together these blogs is that I never know exactly where the topic will take me. In this case, feeling like my hair was on fire led to a new historical acquaintance with an obscure upper class woman who enjoyed playing faro and grieved over the death of Cupid, her pet pig.
🐷 🐷 🐷
A Witch Upon Mount’s Edge by James Gillray, 1791.
Edgcumbe House, 1866.
Honorable George Edgcumbe by Joshua Reynolds.
Emma, Countess of Mount-Edgcumbe 1780.
Herd of Black Pigs from Suffolk by Amanda Slater, 2008.
Decorative folly atop Mount Edgcumbe County Park, Cornwall by Y.ssk/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0.
Symbol of Green Frog Service by Wedgwood.
Platter from Green Frog Service by Wedgwood.
“Mount Edgcumbe, Cornwall.” Overlooked Britain. Pressreader. Sept. 16, 2015.
Alain de Botton. “An Unusually Sensitive Pig.” BennettInk.
Gillian Russell.”Faro’s Daughters: Female Gamesters, Politics & the Disource of Finance in 1790s Britain.” Eighteenth Century Studies. Vol. 33, No. 4. Summer 2000. pp. 481-504.
Sandra Wagner-Wright holds the doctoral degree in history and taught women’s and global history at the University of Hawai`i. Sandra travels for her research, most recently to Salem, Massachusetts, the setting of her new Salem Stories series. She also enjoys traveling for new experiences. Recent trips include Antarctica and a river cruise on the Rhine from Amsterdam to Basel.
Sandra particularly likes writing about strong women who make a difference. She lives in Hilo, Hawai`i with her family and writes a blog relating to history, travel, and the idiosyncrasies of life.