Exhibition: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: Writer, Traveller and Medical Pioneer

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu 1689-1762 by Jonathan Richardson the elder (1667 - 1745). Oil on canvas, circa 1718. © Sheffield Museums Trust

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762) was a traveller, writer, and medical pioneer, yet her contributions to literary and medical history have often been overlooked. This online exhibition recognises her as a key figure in British history and celebrates her introduction of the Turkish practice of engrafting against smallpox to Britain, an early form of inoculating against the disease.

In 1716, Lady Mary’s husband, Edward Wortley Montagu, was appointed British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, and the pair embarked on a journey through Europe to Constantinople, now Istanbul. She documented her experiences in a collection of mock letters and on her return to London in 1718 circulated them under the title The Embassy Letters. One of her greatest legacies was to introduce the method of engrafting against smallpox to London society, which she witnessed whilst living in Turkey.

Lady Mary navigated many of the gender restrictions that inhibited women of the 18th century. Her insights into 18th century Ottoman life are considered some of the most important ever written, whilst her campaign for treatment against smallpox, is recognised as a pioneering effort some 75 years before the first vaccine was created. Yet, in celebrating Lady Mary’s eventful life and pioneering spirit, we must also acknowledge that whilst many of her opinions concerning race, class, gender, sexuality, and the body were typical of the ideological beliefs of the period, they are not acceptable today. Nonetheless, her contribution to both literature and medicine is undeniable and her legacy significant.

View of the Valide Mosque from the Port of Constantinople/ Boarding of ancient fragments sent to France, collected in Greece by Marie-Gabriel-Florent-August de Choiseul-Gouffier, King's Ambassador near the Ottoman Porte in 1789

View of the Valide Mosque from the Port of Constantinople/ Boarding of ancient fragments sent to France, collected in Greece by Marie-Gabriel-Florent-August de Choiseul-Gouffier, King's Ambassador near the Ottoman Porte in 1789
Jean-Baptiste Hilaire (1751 – 1828)
Watercolour on paper, 1789
H15.94 x W22.63in (405mm x 575mm)
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

"New to the sight my ravish’d eyes admire
Each gilded crescent and each antique spire,
The marble mosques, beneath whose ample domes
Fierce warlike sultans sleep in peaceful tombs”

Verses written in the Chiosk of the British Palace, at Pera, overlooking the city of Constantinople, December 26, 1718.

On 1st August 1716, Lady Mary departed London, bound for Constantinople (now Istanbul). She travelled through Europe for six months with her husband and young son. During their fifteen-month stay Lady Mary explored her new home, learning about the differences in religious life, politics, and social customs. She wrote about her experiences in poetry and letters, which were later compiled into books. This passage was intended for a letter book that she circulated amongst London’s high society on her return, establishing her fame as a female writer and wit. This watercolour shows the Valide Mosque (now the Yeni Cami Mosque), which is situated on the banks of the Golden Horn estuary in Istanbul.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu
Achille Devéria, printed by François Le Villain, published by Edward Bull, published by Edward Churton, after Christian Friedrich Zincke
Hand-coloured lithograph, 1830s
19 1/4 in. x 14 1/8 in. (488 mm x 358 mm) paper size
Image: © National Portrait Gallery, London

"How am I chang’d! alas! how am I grown
A frightful spectre to myself unknown!"

Saturday. – The Small-Pox, from Six Town Eclogues written in the year 1715 Flavia.

In 1715, three years before to moving to Constantinople (now Istanbul), Lady Mary contracted smallpox, one of the 18th century’s most fatal infectious diseases. Although Lady Mary survived, her skin was left severely pocked from hundreds of lesions and her eyelashes disappeared entirely. These changes to her appearance caused Lady Mary huge distress.

She reflected on her transformation in the poem Flavia, in which the fictional character fears losing her place in fashionable society due to the death of her good looks. No doubt, this near-fatal experience, along with the loss of her brother from the disease, had a profound effect on Lady Mary. Smallpox remained one of her lifelong concerns.

Alexander Pope, 1688 - 1744

Alexander Pope, 1688 - 1744
Attributed to Charles Jervas (1675 - 1739)
Oil on canvas, circa 1713-1715
H70in. x W50in. (1778mm x 1270mm)
Image: © National Portrait Gallery, London

"After having dreamed of you several nights, beside a hundred reveries by day, I find it necessary to relieve myself by writing…”

Alexander Pope to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, October 1716.

In 1714, Lady Mary entered London literary society and befriended the poet Alexander Pope. The pair frequently corresponded with flirtatious and witty verse. By 1728 however, their friendship had deteriorated, and Pope’s affection turned into hatred. Lady Mary was enraged by his public attacks on her morality and retaliated with her own scathing, satirical replies which resulted in a high-profile quarrel.

The painter Charles Jervas shows Pope as a learned and contemplative man, yet his pose seems uncomfortable. Pope was a survivor of Potts disease (tuberculosis of the spine) that left him severely disabled, therefore this may be a truthful representation of Pope’s posture. Pope went on to become one of the 18th century’s most famous poets.

Letter to Edward Wortley Montagu, Constantinople, March 23rd, 1718

Letter to Edward Wortley Montagu, Constantinople, March 23rd, 1718
From Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689 - 1762)
March 23rd, 1718
Wharncliffe Muniments Collection was accepted in lieu of inheritance tax by H.M. Government and allocated to Sheffield City Council.
Wh M 507/37
Image: Sheffield City Archives

"The Boy was engrafted last Tuesday and is at this time singing and playing and very impatient for his supper. I pray God my next may give as good an Account of him."

Whilst in Turkey, Lady Mary observed children undergoing a medical procedure that was carried out in September every year to protect them against smallpox. She described this procedure as engrafting. The treatment involved taking a small amount of matter from an infected pustule and inserting it into the arm of a healthy child to build immunity. She took the extraordinary decision to have her only son, Edward, treated in this way by a local nurse and the family physician, Charles Maitland. In a letter to her husband who was away in Adrianople, Lady Mary comments that “the Boy” is in good spirits after being engrafted.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu with her son, Edward Wortley Montagu, and attendants

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu with her son, Edward Wortley Montagu, and attendants
Attributed to Jean Baptiste Vanmour (1671 - 1737)
Oil on canvas, circa 1717 H27
1/4 in. x W35 3/4 in. (693 mm x 909 mm)
Image: © National Portrait Gallery, London

"There is no example of anyone that has died in it, and you may believe I am very well satisfied of the safety of the experiment since I intend to try it on my dear little son."

To Mrs S.C_____, Adrianople, April 1, O.S.1717

This picture shows Lady Mary standing with her young son, Edward, in a Turkish interior with Constantinople (now Istanbul) in the background. Edward was living proof that the engrafting treatment was both safe and effective. Here, Lady Mary is shown holding his arm forward, perhaps to emphasise the small needle scar on his wrist. To her right a Janissary, a member of the Sultan’s Guard, holds out a letter for Lady Mary’s attention, confirming her status as a writer of letters.

The Flemish-French painter Jean Baptiste Vanmour lived in Constantinople from 1699 until his death in 1737. He was well known for documenting the customs of court life there.

Tuhfet ul-Mulk (a Turkish translation of Ruju al-shaykh ila sibah, ‘A Shaykh remembers his youth’)

Tuhfet ul-Mulk (a Turkish translation of Ruju al-shaykh ila sibah, ‘A Shaykh remembers his youth’)
Shaykh Muhammad ibn Mustafa al-Misri
Manuscript, vellum and paper, dated 1232
Image: The David Collection, Copenhagen, 8/2018, Pernille Klemp

"I am sure I have now entertained you with an account of such a sight as you never saw in your life, and what no book of travels could inform you of. ‘Tis no less than death for a man to be found in one of these places."

To the Lady_____, Adrianople, April 1, O.S. 1717

In Turkey, Lady Mary was granted permission to visit female areas that were off limits to male travellers, such as inside the Harem or the female Turkish Bath. In one of her letters, she recounts visiting a bagnio, or bathhouse. She describes the scene and likens it to an English coffee house: “… some in conversation, some working, others drinking coffee or sherbet…”.

In England, the 18th century coffee houses were frequented by men to discuss politics, commerce, and to exchange town scandal, however, women were excluded. Lady Mary’s comparison recognised the Turkish Bath, a female only space, as an important equivalent of the coffee house.

The Turkish Bath

The Turkish Bath
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780 - 1867)
Oil on canvas, glued to wood 1852-1859, modified in 1862
H108 x W110cm, Diameter 110cm
Image: © 2007 Musée du Louvre / Angèle Dequier

"The first sofas were covered with cushions and rich carpets, on which sat the ladies, and on the second their slaves behind them, but without any distinction of rank by their dress, all being in the state of nature, that is, in plain English, stark naked… yet there was not the least wanton smile or immodest gesture among them."

To the Lady_____, Adrianople, April 1, O.S. 1717

The French artist Jean August Dominique Ingres painted this scene after taking inspiration from Lady Mary’s letters. However, he converted her accounts into an eroticised fantasy for a Western, mainly male, audience. Ingres’s portrayal of the naked ‘Eastern’ female body is typical of European images known as Orientalism. This genre developed in the 19th century, depicting the inhabitants of Turkey, Greece, the Middle East, and North Africa in an untruthful and often misleading way. 

Ingres’s painting is as much an artist’s study in classical beauty and form as it is sexual fantasy. Originally commissioned by Prince Napoléon Bonaparte of France, the painting was returned to the artist as it was deemed too shocking by his wife, Princess Maria Clotilde of Savoy.

The Kislar Aghassi, Chief of the Black Eunuchs of the Sultan

The Kislar Aghassi, Chief of the Black Eunuchs of the Sultan
Jean-Baptiste Vanmour (workshop of)
Oil on Canvas, 1700 – 1737
H39 x W31cm
Image: CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) Public Domain Dedication

"… the Kilar Aga (your ladyship knows this is the chief guardian of the seraglio ladies) in a deep yellow cloth (which suited very well to his black face) lined with sable…"

To the Countess of _______, Adrianople, April 1, O.S. 1717

Lady Mary was particularly interested in the hierarchies of the Turkish Court. In a letter to Lady Bristol she describes watching the Sultan’s procession to mosque and notes the attendance of the ‘Kilar Aga’, the highest-ranking Eunuch in the Ottoman Empire. 

Despite being members of an enslaved class who had been castrated and then sold from East Africa to the Ottoman Empire, Eunuchs held a high social status and were highly regarded. As the head of all Eunuchs, The Kislar Aghassi benefited from a close relationship with the Sultan. He was in charge of the heavily guarded seraglio, the Sultan’s Imperial Harem which consisted of enslaved women from many different countries.

In the Seraglio, Turkish costumes of the court and of the city of Constantinople

In the Seraglio, Turkish costumes of the court and of the city of Constantinople
Unknown artist, Turkey
Drawing on paper, c.1720
H21.5 x 30.4cm
Image: agephotostock/ Alamy Stock Photo

"For me, I am not ashamed to own, I took more pleasure in looking on the beauteous Fatima than the finest piece of sculpture could have given me."

To the Countess of______Adrianople, April 18, O.S.

Despite Lady Mary’s high status in society, being female put her at a disadvantage in the literary world. However, she broke many gender boundaries of the time, often writing as a man to address issues affecting women. She was nicknamed Sappho by her male contemporaries, after the ancient Greek poetess who wrote about female same-sex relationships. Initially a compliment it was later used to question Lady Mary’s sexuality. Lady Mary’s diaries were destroyed after her death by her daughter to avoid scandal, so we may never know of Lady Mary’s true feelings about her sexuality.

In a letter to her sister, Lady Mary describes a visit to the Seraglio (female apartments) and meeting Fatima, the wife of the Kâhya, the Grand Vizier’s chief of staff. She describes the beauty of Fatima and her attendants with admiration, awe, and perhaps desire.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu 1689-1762

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu 1689-1762
Jonathan Richardson the elder (1667 - 1745)
Oil on canvas, circa 1718
H136.7 x W108.8cm
Image: Sheffield Museums Trust

"The curdée is a loose robe they throw off or put on according to the weather, being of a rich brocade (mine is a green and gold) either lined with ermine or sables. The headdress is composed of a cap, called talpock which is in winter of fine velvet embroidered with pearls or diamonds…"

To the Countess of ______, Adrianople, April 1, O.S. 1717

Whilst living in Turkey Lady Mary dressed in Turkish clothes, out of admiration and for practical reasons, such as wearing a veil to disguise her face when travelling through the city. After returning to England she continued to wear modified versions of Turkish dress, adapting it for a new Western style. In this picture Lady Mary holds the trim of her sable lined curdée to reveal an orange caftan. A feather is pinned with a diamond clasp to her velvet talpoche, or head-dress, and the length of her hair is braided in the Turkish style. Istanbul, with its recognisable domed rooftops and minarets, can be seen in the distance, associating her with travel and exploration.

Queen Caroline of Ansbach (1683-1737), when Princess of Wales

Queen Caroline of Ansbach (1683-1737), when Princess of Wales
Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646 - 1723)
Oil on canvas, 1716
H240.0 x 141.6cm
Image: Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021

"Out of compassion to the Numbers abus’d and deluded by the Knavery and Ignorance of Physicians, I am determin’d to give a true Account of the Manner of Inoculating the Small Pox, as it is practiced in Constantinople with complete successe, and without any ill consequence whatever."

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, “A Plain Account of the Inoculating of the Small Pox by a Turkey Merchant”, The Flying Post, 13 September 172

Caroline Wilhelmina, Princess of Wales, joined Lady Mary in favour of immunisation against smallpox. Her two daughters were successfully engrafted in London in 1722, and the two-year-old Prince William Augustus in 1723. However, before trusting the procedure to be safe, the Princess used her position of power to order six convicts to be treated and promised them a pardon if they should survive. The trial was a success and Royal approval was granted.

However, debates about the safety of the procedure raged in the press. In September 1722 The Flying Post published an essay said to be written by a Turkish merchant but in fact penned by Lady Mary in which she advocated the safety of engrafting, now termed by her as inoculation.

Lady in Turkish Dress Holding a Fan

Lady in Turkish Dress Holding a Fan
Jean-Étienne Liotard (1702 - 1789)
Oil paint on copper, c.1738 – 1771
H16.7 x W19.5cm
Image: @Royal Lazienki Museum in Warsaw

"I will try to awaken your gratitude by giving you a full and true relation of the sight of my person as I am now in my Turkish habit, though I believe you would be of my opinion that ‘tis admirably becoming."

To the Countess of______, Adrianople, April 1, O.S. 1717

Imitating aspects of Turkish culture became increasingly popular in Europe after the Franco-Ottoman alliance of 1715. In portraiture, it became fashionable for the European gentry to be painted wearing Turkish dress. Lady Mary’s highly descriptive written accounts of Turkish women dressed in luxurious garments, and her own habit of wearing modified Turkish clothing, perpetuated the craze of dressing ‘en Turque’ in Britain. 

The sitter in this painting was once thought to be Lady Mary. The picture is now understood to be one of several versions that the Swiss artist Jean-Étienne Liotard painted during his ‘Turkish period’ having lived in Constantinople (now Istanbul) from 1738 to 1742.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689 - 1762) writer and traveller

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689 - 1762) writer and traveller
Carlo Francesco Rusca (1696 - 1769)
Oil on canvas, 1739
H85 x W66cm
© Image; Crown Copyright:  UK Government Art Collection

"Say, then does the unbodied spirit fly
To happier climes and to a better sky?
Or, sinking, mixes with its kindred clay,
And sleeps a whole eternity away?"

Poem addressed to____, 1736

This picture was commissioned in London either by Lady Mary herself or by her friend Henrietta Cavendish Harley (1694-1755), Countess of Oxford. Painted in 1739, shortly before Lady Mary left England to live permanently in Italy, it served as a token of their long-lasting friendship and remained in the Countess’s possession. Lady Mary is shown in a Turkish gown with one hand keeping place in a book and the other gesticulating as if she is composing a poem. The skull serves to remind the viewer that all earthly pleasures and vanity in life are transient and would be left behind after death.

Edward Wortley Montagu (1713 - 1776)

Edward Wortley Montagu (1713 - 1776)
George Romney (1734 - 1802)
Oil on canvas, about 1775
H146.5 x W112cm
Image: Sheffield Museums Trust

"It is very disagreeable for me to converse with one from whom I do not expect to hear a word of Truth…"

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu to Edward Wortley Montagu, 23 April 1742

Lady Mary’s son, Edward, was greatly inspired by his childhood stay in Turkey and developed a lifelong interest in Ottoman culture. He studied Arabic at Leyden University and later travelled throughout the Middle East as an archaeologist. He was also a habitual gambler and womaniser, which caused his mother constant worry. She died leaving him only a single guinea in her will.

George Romney's portrait was painted in Venice, where he described Edward as living with, “the manners and magnificence of a Turk”. After Lady Mary’s death in 1762, Edward attempted to pass himself off as the illegitimate son of the Turkish Sultan and wore the saffron turban of a prince of the Ottoman Empire.

Edward Jenner (1749 - 1823)

Edward Jenner (1749 - 1823)
James Northcote (1746 - 1831)
Oil on canvas, 1803
H50in. x 40in. (1270mm x 1016)
Image: © National Portrait Gallery, London

"I am patriot enough to take pains to bring this useful invention into fashion in England, and I should not fail to write to some of our doctors very particularly about it if I knew any one of them that I thought had virtue enough to destroy such a considerable branch of their revenue for the good of mankind…"

To Mrs S.C_____, Adrianople, April 1, O.S.1717

Dr Edward Jenner is credited with creating the smallpox vaccine. He observed that milkmaids who had been infected by bovine cowpox were often immune to smallpox establishing a link between the two diseases. On May 14 1796, Jenner trialled an experiment on James Phipps, the 8-year old son of his gardener via the existing method of inoculation. Phipps was infected with cowpox, from which he recovered and was then later reinfected with smallpox. The boy survived, unharmed from either disease, proving Jenner’s theory. Jenner published his findings in An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolæ Vaccinæ. The term vaccination stemming from vacca, the Latin word for cow.

Jenner’s discovery was instrumental in eradicating smallpox, yet his ideas relied heavily on Lady Mary’s introduction of engrafting over 75 years earlier. However, Jenner gained approval from the medical profession, from which Lady Mary, as a woman, had been excluded.


You can take a closer look at our portrait of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, with Corinna Henderson, Curatorial Trainee with Sheffield Museums, in this talk Sheffield Museums Live: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu – Beyond the Portrait:


You can find out more about Lady Mary from our friends at Barnsley Museums here