When the intrepid Lady Mary Wortley Montagu travelled with her husband’s embassy to Turkey in 1716, she recorded the minutiae of life on the road and in her ‘new world’. . Remarkably open-minded, her innocent observations inspired Ingres to paint some of the greatest erotic masterpieces of the Romantic movement.
Gertrude Bell, the Empress Helena, Jane Digby, Hester Stanhope – of all the world’s great women travellers, there is one that eclipses the rest. Not for the hazards of her travels, or for the exoticism of the places she visited, but for her audacity and the objectivity with which she recorded her experiences.
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was born in the closing years of the 17th century, the daughter of Evelyn Pierrepont, Marquess of Dorchester (later Duke of Kingston-upon-Hull). Her girlhood friend was Anne Wortley, and it was Anne’s brother, Edward Wortley Montagu, with whom Mary fell in love. in the first surviving letter to him, written in 1710, she says: ‘You are brother to a woman I tenderly loved. My protestations of friendship are not like other people’s. I never speak but what I mean, and when I say love, it is for ever.’
Thus began a correspondence in which she bared her soul, but could not resist dissecting her own emotions and Edward’s, too. She also had an ambition: ‘My schemes are a little romantic. Was I to follow my own inclinations, it would be to travel, my first and chiefest wish.’ This was a prophesy, for, after a stormy courtship violently opposed by her family, she eloped with Wortley, as she called him, and married him in August 1712. She bore him a son nine months later… On April 7, 1716 Wortley was appointed ambassador to Turkey… and on August 1 the embass sailed from Gravesend to Rotterdam, and the long journey to Turkey began.
It was also the beginning of the first great phase in Mary’s life, and the composition of a series of travel letters describing her experiences which was later to establish her reputation as a writer. The Turkish Embassy Letters, as they are called, were published in 1761, less than a year after her death.
From the moment she stepped ashore her sensitive eye went into sharp focus… This was no description of a Romantic grand tour, but rather the pinning down of her everyday experiences…
One hundred years later, in 1817, the painter Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres copied a French translation of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s description of the Turkish bath into his youthful sketchbook. It contains Lady Mary’s key passage: ‘…il y avait bien là deux cent baigneuses; les premier sophas furent couverts de coussins et de riches tapis; et toutes étaient nues…’
However objective she intended her account to be, it had the reverse effect on Ingres, for it inspired him to paint, 45 years later, one of the most erotic pictures in the whole history of art. This was Le Bain Turc, of 1863…
This article is based on a lecture first given by invitation of the Windsor Festival in 1995, and subsequently for the Islamic Circle, London.
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