Saucy scandal of Lady Penelope... After an unsavoury divorce the Viscountess Ligonier came to Halifax to escape public eye
The BBC’s recent colourful and salacious costume drama The Scandalous Lady W, starring Natalie Dormer, told the tale of Seymour, Lady Worsley, stepdaughter of Edwin Lascelles, Lord Harewood.
This reminded me that during that same period Halifax had a resident noblewoman who was regarded as a “scarlet woman”. She was at the centre of a great society scandal in 1771 and was almost certainly living here when the Worsley case hit the headlines in 1782.
Thomas Gainsborough’s 1770 portrait of Penelope, Viscountess Ligonier, is one of his finest; it is one of a pair, the other featuring her husband, Viscount Edward.
I first came across the name of Lady Ligonier’s connection with Halifax some years ago, while reading the works of local antiquary J Horsfall Turner .
When Turner was a boy there were memories of this great lady who had blotted her copybook in the district where he was raised and until fairly recently a painting of a hunting scene including her image and that of the Rev William Aked, curate of Southowram, hung in the house of the late John Thompson at St Anne’s in the Grove.
It was following a scandalous divorce that Lady Ligonier arrived here in the mid-1770s. She lived at New House, Lightcliffe (its site today occupied by the Manor House residential home), where her ladyship is said to have consorted with a man named Wright.
Penelope’s other known local residence was the former Lecturer’s House at the top of Causeway, Halifax, on the site where the Wilby insurance firm is today. That building later became part of the first Halifax Dispensary and, later still, a barracks; it was demolished at the turn of the 20th century.
What brought this famous society beauty to Yorkshire is unknown, except that she was seeking to live her life out of the public eye.
Penelope Pitt was born in Hampshire in 1749, the daughter of Lord Rivers and a relative of the famous statesman William Pitt the Elder. She grew up to be a very beautiful young woman, moving in the highest circles, and was presented to King George III and Queen Charlotte. She is mentioned in the letters of Horace Walpole, art historian, antiquarian and politician.
In December 1766 she married Edward Ligonier at the The Lecturer’s House , Causeway, Halifax, one of two homes occupied by Lady Penelope during her years out of the public eye in the town. British Embassy in Paris. He was a soldier, the heir to his uncle, Field Marshal Earl Ligonier, a great British soldier of French Huguenot descent.
But the marriage was not a success. In 1770 Ligonier succeeded his uncle, becoming Viscount Ligonier. When Gainsborough painted his portraits of the elite couple later that year Penelope may have already launched into a series of adulterous affairs, first with her husband’s head groom and then with Count Vittorio Alfieri, a well-known Italian dramatist.
By the time Gainsborough exhibited his portraits of the Ligonier couple at the Royal Academy in 1771 he knew that the marriage he had been commissioned to immortal-