The Story Behind the Photo: “Patsy” Cornwallis West.
I can’t remember when or where I bought this photo (I must have paid a dollar for it) but I was intrigued by the coy beauty draped in fox tails (so un-PC today!) On the back of the photo, advertising “Photographers by Special Appointment to Her Majesty the Queen,” someone had scrawled “Mme. Cornwallis West, June 27th ’83.”
After a little research, I learned that this beautiful woman was not only one of the celebrities of her day—she was the daughter of a British king’s mistress and herself mistress to Edward, Prince of Wales, when she was just 16—but later her passionate affair with a wounded 23-year-old sergeant when she was 58 years old nearly brought down the British government!
(It’s stories like this that make collecting old photos so much fun.)
Born into an upper-class Irish family, Mary Cornwallis-West (always known as “Patsy”) became a mistress to the Prince of Wales at the age of sixteen in 1872. She was quickly married to the accommodating Colonel Cornwallis-West, approximately twice her age. They had three children.
Patsy moved in society and was good friends with other famous beauties who became royal mistresses, like Lillie Langtry, the actress.
Patrick Barrett was a young sergeant with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers during the First World War when he was wounded and shell-shocked. He was convalescing in the home of employees of Cornwallis-West when Patsy, in her late fifties by now, fell in love with him.
Here is a summary of the scandal that followed:
“When the noble-born Mary Cornwallis West, known as Patsy, started a secret affair with a wounded soldier billeted at her family's estate, neither of them dreamed that their relationship would throw the reputation of the entire British Parliament into question. But as Patsy's attempts to get her lover promoted to an officership were uncovered, the case came to symbolize all the ways in which the aristocracy toyed with the lives and deaths of British commoners. Patsy's own life of luxury and often reckless disregard for manners and morals were called into question, and she and her War Office consorts were shamed in front of Parliament and the press. And finally a dramatic Act of Parliament, especially introduced by David Lloyd George because of the affair, resulted in Patsy herself being questioned by a secret military tribunal.”
When she was questioned, she replied defiantly: “Why are you asking me this? Do you want me to explain to you about feelings? Do you not know about caring for someone?”
If you want to know more of her story, read “Patsy: the Story of Mary Cornwallis-West” by Tim Coates.
Mary Cornwallis-West died in 1920 at the age of 64. For defying the British government and defiantly declaring her love for the lower-class soldier who was less than half her age, I think she deserves to be the “Crone of the Week” as well as the “Story behind the Photo.”
After 40 years as a journalist, I turned 60 and decided to return to my first love--painting. I’ve exhibited watercolors and photographs in Massachusetts and have a slide show of paintings below. My photo book “The Secret Life of Greek Cats” can be purchased by clicking on the cover below.
I collect way too many things, but my great passion is antique photographs, from the earliest—daguerreotypes (circa 1840) up to 1900 (cabinet cards, tintypes.) I approach each one as a mystery to solve, and in unlocking their secrets have met some fascinating historic figures. For some of the stories, check the list of “The Story Behind the Photograph”.
My husband Nick and I live in Grafton, MA and recently celebrated our 41st anniversary. We have 3 children, now amazing adults. And on Aug. 26, 2011, we greeted our first grandchild, Amalía-- world’s cutest baby. But this blog isn’t about grandparenting (although photos of the grandkid sneak in). As it says up top, it’s about travel, art, photography and life after sixty. And crone power.