Mrs. Arthur Paget, Later Lady Paget née Mary (Minnie) Stevens
(1853 – 1919) as Cleopatra
Edward, Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, costumed at the ball as Grand Master of the Knights Hopitallers of Malta
The Queen threatened to cancel the celebrations should she be forced to contribute to the costs. Eventually the money came from public funds.
An enriching history lesson
By Ica Wahbeh
The Victorian court and high society lifestyle, historical accounts, social mores, cultural influences and thorough physical descriptions form part of the rich, intriguing, juicy information provided by the photos and their captions on exhibit at the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts.
Organised in collaboration with the Victoria and Albert Museum of London, “Dreams of Orient and Occident” is a most astonishing selection of portraits taken on the occasion of the “Duchess of Devonshire’s historic ball at Devonshire House last week”, writes the Photographic News on July 9, 1897. It was an event that necessitated a photographic studio where “a camera was much in request to record some of the wonderfully accurate costumes worn by the guests…. A photographic record of the scene and those who took part in it was not doubt secured, and in future times, when the doings of this great year are calmly narrated…, its interest will be extremely deep”.
The costume ball was brought on by Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, on July 2, 1897, an occasion that “was celebrated, in the press at least, with a feeling of exhilaration and respect tinged with hysteria”.
Louisa, Duchess of Devonshire, one of London’s foremost political hostesses, decided to hold the ball, on which occasion, instead of trying to compete, other London hostesses “invested all their efforts into ensuring that they were on the guest list”.
And so over 700 invitations were sent out (figures went up to 3,000 in some reports of the event) in advance, for the invitees to have time to prepare their costumes, sending into a frenzy “the best dressmakers, wigmakers, theatrical costumiers and even metalworkers in London and Paris” and soliciting the imagination of the aristocracy, especially women, who had to study “portraits and engravings of ladies ‘robed for coronation or beheading’ in London museums”.
Fortunes were spent, but not in vain, as the London photographic firm of Lafayette was invited to set up a tent in the garden behind the house to photograph the guests in costume during the ball, immortalising them for posterity.
“This would have been a formidable commission for James Stack Lauder, the owner of the firm, and evidence from the extant negatives shows that he had transported from the Bond Street studio a variety of backdrops and props and, of course photographic equipment.”
The result is tens of portraits – some taken after the ball for, “due to the complexity of their costumes and the exposure times needed for the glass plate negatives, there simply was not enough time to capture all the guests”, and “the knowledge that an album would be published with portraits of the guests in costume may well have led those who were not satisfied with the results of the hurried photographic session to visit the Lafayette studio once or twice more with their costumes, some people up to six months after the event” – of costume-clad “upper class” individuals for who “dressing up in historical costume to present a tableau vivant was a popular and respectable amusement and means of shedding some of the period’s cast-iron inhibitions – even at the sullen court of Queen Victoria”.
Richly decorated attire, an abundance of jewellery, famous people and precious details about the personae, historical facts, background and life document an era and social class, make interesting history and are aesthetically enchanting.
Stiff or languorous, the poses tell much about the character and about the “deference” imposed by the camera.
Mythical or historical characters inspire the costumes, as do literature, poetry, opera, theatre and the fine arts. The fascination with the Orient shows in the costumes representing Cleopatra, the Queen of Sheba, Semiramis or Zenobia.
The artistic value of the portraits is incontestable, but the witty, flippant and ultimately true statements about the characters make perusing them an appealing lesson, removed from the dry, date-engorged history class most learners try to shirk.
Thus the viewer reads that “preparations for the Diamond Jubilee of 1897 started six years earlier at which time the Queen threatened to cancel the celebrations should she be forced to contribute to the costs”. Eventually the money came from public funds.
The Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII), as Grand Master of the Knights Hospitallers of Malta, at the Devonshire House Ball, 1897.
Or that Edward, Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, costumed at the ball as Grand Master of the Knights Hopitallers of Malta, “in 1897 was in the unfortunate position of being 56 and still prevented by his mother, Queen Victoria, from playing any role in state affairs” because “she despised the life her son and his fast friends led”. Yet, “for all the misgivings expressed about his capabilities and morals by the press upon his accession, he proved to be not only a popular, but also a dutiful and wise monarch”.
Or that Mrs Arthur Paget, later Lady Paget, dressed at the ball as Cleopatra, was left by her wealthy hotelier father Paran Stevens “the fantastic sum of ten million dollars”, which enabled her to do charitable work. For the ball, she “commissioned one of the most spectacular and certainly the most expensive costumes from Worth of Paris at a reputed cost of over $6,000. The train is of black crêpe de chine, embroidered with gold scarabs. The bodice, encrusted with gold and diamonds, is held up on the shoulders with straps of large emeralds and diamonds. The square headdress is made of cloth of gold with striped black and gold sphinx-like side pieces studded with diamonds, and incrusted with diamonds”.
The details are indeed rich and captivating. The images are fascinating and art lovers should be grateful for being given the chance to have a glimpse at these photographs.
The selection of portraits, as the organisers say, “attempts to show how the late-Victorian mind, on one night in 1897, indulged its fantasies. Mostly freed from the constraints of money, the sitters in these portraits interpreted their dreams of history and mythology by drawing on the cream of literature, painting, poetry and music. The occidental personalities at this costume ball also give an insight into how the West reimagined itself in a similarly romantic fashion”.
For a leisurely view of the photographs, the gallery has them on display until November 20.