Tuesday, 19 July 2011
Nicknamed ‘Skittles’, and called Katie, Kitty or Skittsie by her lovers, Catherine Walters was a familiar site riding along the fashionable Rotton Row in London’s Hyde Park. Riding a chestnut mare, the simplicity of her Princess riding habit was cut so perfectly it looked as if it may have been glued to her. So perfect was the fit, and so tight, it was even rumoured that she wore nothing beneath.
Catherine was original, inventive and flamboyant. She loved the outdoors, and was physically daring. She was classically lovely, sweet, yielding and as delicate as a flower – she also inspired romantic hopeless passion. Dark blonde with blue eyes, clear skin and a pure complexion, photographs of her show her to be a ravishing natural beauty. Catherine had an aristocratic air and was an expert horsewoman. Her perfect figure shown off to its best advantage when riding side saddle in her famous outfit and pork pie hat.
Born in Liverpool to a sea captain and his Irish wife, Catherine was far from the aristocrat that she appeared to be. She was raised a Catholic and was sent to a convent school at the age of 4 when her mother died. From which she ran away after a fight with the mother superior. She found employment at a livery stable displaying the animals on the hunting field. And her nickname Skittles is said to have come from this time because of her skill at the skittles alley.
At the age of 16 she became the mistress of Lord Fitzwilliam, and when they separated a few years later she received a very generous settlement of £300 a year with a further £2000 lump sum. She then transferred her affections to Spencer Compton Cavendish, Marquis of Huntington and heir to the Duke of Devonshire, he was known to friends as Harty-Tarty. This relationship was deeply affectionate on both sides. And letters survive to show that they wrote to each other up to 3 times a week over a four year period. Catherine was just 19 when she met Hartington, and he 26. He wrote bluntly but with real feeling, often very husbandly.
Both were passionate about hunting and the site of Skittles riding so daringly and expertly was a powerful aphrodisiac to the men around her. Her skills found her acceptance in a part of society that denied her everywhere else. And when she moved to London for the season when Hartington did, she filled her time taking lessons from a governess, and learned quickly to portray the image that she wanted to portray. Hartington was always very generous – providing her with horses, hunters and a house in Mayfair. Rather than he be jealous of her, it was her that showed jealousy when they were apart. But sadly their relationship became harder and harder to maintain.
By 1861 Catherine was a famous site riding through Hyde Park, attracting a lot of attention. The fashionable ladies did their best to imitate her style and dress, but none where as beautiful as her. Although the women of society couldn’t acknowledge her existence, even The Times and Daily Telegraph featured articles about her. It was too late for marriage now even though it was said that marriage was what Hartington had intended.
Her fame ended her relationship with Hartington without the consent of either of them. Although it was he that ended it he still showed her great care, and Catherine’s determination showed when she followed him to New York to persuade him to take her back. Their relationship floundered on for a further year, on and off again, but she knew it was over. She was genuinely unhappy and moved to Paris, selling her house, horses and carriages. Generous until the end, Hartington and his relieved family settled £500 a year on her, which was continued after his death by the Devonshire estate until her own death.
Immediately after this difficult break Catherine met Wilfred Scawen Blunt. She purposely seduced him, and their whirlwind romance lasted approx. 4 weeks – a summer romance. His most famous poem Esther was written about Catherine later in his life. He was naive and believed her as devotedly in love with him as he was with her, and was totally devastated when she broke it off. Pleading with her she allowed him to go with her back to Paris from Biarritz, but it would not work. In Paris he found her a very different woman.
After shunning all other society at Biarritz for him alone, Catherine now actively encouraged her admirers. Blunt convinced himself this was not her true character, and while she tried to protect him at first from the jokes and comments made by others, she too joined in the fun. The split, and to Blunt it was a shattering experience. Years later, in Paris again, Catherine wrote to him calling him back to her. And he found her in very different circumstances. She was still beautiful, but very ill looking and almost ill-dressed. No-one knows what her misfortunes were, but she convinced Blunt that she wanted to set up a life with him and live in a poor quiet way. And that he should find an apartment for them while she finished some business in London. Catherine took a long time to come back to Paris, and when she finally appeared she was exactly her old self and living in a stunning apartment of her own at 123 Avenue des Champs Elysees that had somehow been set up for her and her sister Caroline. She told him that he would see her as much as he liked, but it wasn’t to be. Instead he found that he could only get to see her very early in the morning for breakfast and a short ride.
By the afternoon Catherine was no longer the women he loved. She was at the height of her career and was one of the most celebrated courtesans in all of London and Paris. She still sometimes disguised herself to spend an evening with Blunt as she had once claimed she wanted to live, but it was impossible for her to live the life she really wanted. Blunt couldn’t bare to ask her how she spent her time away from him, and their final break came when he arrived at her apartment to find a man there with her; her protector, the man that paid for her extravagance. She tried to comfort him but of course it ended.
It isn’t really known if Catherine had been leading Blunt on. She’d always been generous and given to him rather than took. Later in life she began a correspondence with Blunt again that lasted for nearly 40 years. In this latter part of her life she threw elegant Sunday afternoon tea parties that were attended by her friends. Old lovers such as Hartington, Blunt and even the Prince of Wales attended her, and she always took particular pride in bringing friends together.
She had the rare skill to turn former lovers into committed friends. She was often very ill in her last years, and on the advice of doctors she spent more and more time abroad, and ended at 81, her gift for friendship never leaving her. During her last illness both Blunt and The Prince of Wales (now King Edward) continued to visit and write to her. Her death marked the end of the golden age of British courtesanry. She was the last Great Courtesan.
I hand sew all of my dolls clothes from a mix of brand new and recycled fabrics; designing each piece individually to ensure a unique period outfit. I make each layer of clothing that would have been worn by real women to make a truly unique doll. And even though many of these layers can’t be seen they really help to create the right shape and feel to the outfits, as well as giving support to the finished layers. I research not only the lives of the women for my portrait dolls, but also the styles and fashions they would have worn, making each doll truly special.
Catherine’s clothing is full of details, and she was dressed in each layer to create an authentic outfit. To fit in with her flamboyant lifestyle I made both her bloomers and shift from pure silk in cream trimmed with a deep red ribbon, with a closely fitted cotton under-layer to her corset to protect her skin from the ridged support.
As a riding habit is a practical working outfit it doesn’t have the layers of petticoats, bustles or hoops that a usual outfit of this time would have. Instead Catherine wears a pair of wool felt riding breeches beneath her riding apron that have been tailored to enhance her perfect figure, being flat across the stomach and gently gathered at the sides and back with an extra layer to protect the riders delicate behind.
She has a practical black blouse with tightly cuffed balloon sleeves and a high ruffle under her chin, layered with black lace that has a teal flower pattern. Her riding habit itself has a very fitted jacket with a double collar and wide pointed cuffs detailed with hand embroidered frogging. It also has period square tails and a pointed front that shows off her tiny waist.
Catherine’s double layered riding apron or skirts has the traditional odd shape with a shaped, longer section to one side which creates room for the rider to raise her legs elegantly over the side saddle riding horns. As well as ensuring that her skirts will lie evenly and not flash her ankles when riding, this extra length drapes very prettily to create a train on one side which can be hooked up to allow her to walk without tripping. Both jacket and skirt are made in a soft grey with a plum lining to her skirts.
I made Catherine’s black pork pie shaped hat from wool felt, shaping the brim to create an elegant curve. It has a dusky pink and silver ribbon band trim with a large bow and trailing ribbon at the back that has been decorated with tiny blue and cream flowers.
This doll stands at 49cm tall, weighs approx. 230g