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1897 Fancy Dressing

In many respects, 1897 was a vintage year for the British ruling classes. On 22 June, Queen Victoria processed in an open landau through the streets of London, attended by 50,000 troops and leaders of state from across the Empire. Thousands of her subjects lined the pavements to St Paul’s Cathedral where the nation joined in thanksgiving for the Diamond Jubilee of her coronation. It was a glorious affirmation of Britain’s standing in the world. Affirmations, however, are often necessary when threats are mounting on the horizon. Two decades of agricultural depression and cheap food imports from the colonies had seen the prestige and profits from landowning slump. Military and technological competition from rising nation states in Europe, together with expanding colonial aspirations that challenged British hegemony abroad destabilised the balance of power. And at home, the social status quo was coming under pressure from the incursions of plutocrats and industrialists into positions of influence on the one hand, and increasing demands from Fabians and Suffragettes for change on the other.

Explore the 1897 catalogue

The casual observer, strolling through the West End during London’s 1897 season, could have been forgiven for not noticing any of these portentous tremors. In the atmosphere of jingoism and celebration that surrounded the Jubilee, expressions of concern for what the future held were muted. Fashion and art, as ever, conspired to ensure that pleasure was not too sullied by politics. This attitude found a powerful resonance that summer in two of Piccadilly’s most prestigious buildings: Burlington House where the Royal Academy Exhibition was proudly displayed and Devonshire House, where the Duchess of Devonshire hosted perhaps the most famous fancy dress ball in British history on the evening of 2 July. The synergies connecting both establishments (merely minutes from each other) were powerful.

The hang at the 129th Royal Academy showing, under the presidency of Sir E.J. Poynter, was marked by scenes of wistful nostalgia, vaguely antique or precisely Shakespearian in inspiration, some stirring British battle scenes, and a number of glossy portraits of the aristocracy and metropolitan elite. Notable among them, hanging in Gallery III, was John Singer Sargent’s stunning debut painting, as Academician elect of Mrs Carl Meyer and her children (Fig. 1). It is a striking composition in Rococo revival pinks and greys, captured vertiginously from above that says much about both the shifting social scene (the glamorous Mrs Meyer was the wife of Carl, chairman of de Beers bank) and the shifting register of taste in art and style. Sargent’s compatriot, Henry James, caught its cosmopolitan sophistication when he remarked that it was:

so far higher a triumph of painting than anything else in the place that, meeting it early in his course the spectator turns from it with a grateful sense that the whole message of that art has on this occasion, so far as he is concerned, been uttered.1

Mrs Meyer was not one of those titled ladies invited to the Devonshire House ball, but her frothy tulle gown, embellished with a black velvet cummerbund, bows, and a flaring overskirt of salmon pink silk, pompadour hair, and an antique fan were a match for the costumes of those dowagers who appeared at the party as Catherine the Great, Charlotte Corday, and Marie Antoinette. Her confident modernity, despite its historicist illusions, is in strong contrast to their slightly stuffy appropriation of the wardrobes of long-dead heroines. The same might be said of many of the works competing with Sargent’s tour du force for gallery space. Alma-Tadema’s Watching and Her Eyes are with her Thoughts, or George Frampton’s ingenious multimedia sculpture of Dame Alice Owen, like so many works that year suggest the world of the village pageant or the backstage wardrobe of a Drury Lane historical drama. Their careful, archaeological verisimilitude was to be applauded, but they lacked the life-force. Perhaps more artists should have taken note of the quotation by Sir Joshua Reynolds, chosen as the Foreword for the 1897 Academy Programme: “Imitation is the means, and not the end, of art.”2

The Devonshire House Ball was a wonderful if extravagant affair, remembered fondly by many, and captured in a series of evocative studio photographs by James Lauder of the Lafayette Company of the attendees dressed in character like the living portraits of W.S. Gilbert and A. Sullivan’s Ruddigore or the wax mannequins of Madame Tussaud’s Museum (Fig. 2). Its deliberate appeal to patriotism and nostalgia seemed to be set almost in defiance of a shifting social mood. In wistful register, the Duchess of Marlborough recalled that:

The Ball lasted to the early hours of the morning, and the sun was rising as I walked through Green Park to Spencer House … On the grass were the dregs of humanity. Human beings too dispirited or sunk to find work or favour. … In my billowing period dress I must have seemed to them a vision of wealth and youth, and I thought soberly that they must hate me.3

Times were changing and Devonshire House, like many of the great aristocratic London palaces would be closed and sold within two decades, demolished in the 1920s for flats and offices. Burlington House, of course survived, along with the Academy Summer Exhibitions, as did the twentieth-century values of Sargent and Mrs Meyer: snappy, optimistic, open, and full of pleasure.

  1. A. Wilton, The Swagger Portrait (London: Tate Gallery, 1992), 196.↩︎

  2. The Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts, The One Hundredth and Twenty Ninth (London: W.M. Clowes and Son, 1897).↩︎

  3. S. Murphy, The Duchess of Devonshire’s Ball (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1984), 166.↩︎

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Explore the 1897 catalogue