Defacing Beauty

'Six Stages of Mending a Face' (1792) © Trustees of the British Museum

‘Six Stages of Mending a Face’ (1792) © Trustees of the British Museum

One eighteenth-century reviewer’s judgement on an exhibition of paintings, recorded in The Times, was marred slightly by one thing – the distraction of women.

The walking paintings at the exhibitions are by far more curious, more attractive, and more worthy the attention of the speculative mind than those whose situations are stationary. Why will women take so much pains to render their appearance unnameable – as Ordeal says in the new comedy, “they should be prosecuted for high treason in defacing beauty”.

The Times, 13 May 1785, page 2


This put-out writer was misquoting the 1785 play Fashionable Levities, which had the character of Mr Ordeal praise a woman for her natural looks. Ordeal says, ‘her real face shall never be concealed under a counterfeit; some ladies coin complexions, and should be punished for high treason in defacing beauty’.


Appropriately, given the legal language in the play, it was written by the Dublin barrister Leonard Macnally. He trod a fine line between comedy and the law, writing at least 12 plays – mainly satires and comedies – as well as comic operas, and writing both a well respected book on the law of evidence and a handbook (albeit described as ‘exceedingly inaccurate‘) on the role of the Justice of the Peace in Ireland. He is regarded as having helped define the standard of ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ at criminal trials.

Yet Macnally was also a founding member of the Society of United Irishmen in the 1790s – set up to get parliamentary reform, but which became an Irish republican organisation – and defended other members in court, his clients including Wolfe Tone (also a former barrister). After his death in 1820, it was discovered that he had, in fact, been a government informant, spying on the United Irishmen for Britain. For the last 26 years of his life, he had been receiving payment for his services.

According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, one of his common tactics was, when given a brief for the defence in a government prosecution, to pass on its contents to the crown’s lawyers. Yet James McMullen Rigg stated that ‘though no great lawyer [he] was…a powerful cross-examiner.’

Of course, there are similarities between law and drama – there is an element of acting when you are a barrister presenting a case in court, and in drama, you say your lines wanting your audience to believe what you say, and believe who you are.

But Macnally confused things further, using legal language in his plays, and playing several characters himself – playwright, lawyer, republican, government informer.

Macnally’s life may have been interesting, but he does not come across as an attractive character – much like the made-up women he critiqued in his play.