There were a number of establishments known as Almack’s over the years; today we are focusing on the famous Assembly Rooms on King Street, St James.
Opened in 1765 by a Yorkshireman named William Almack (often mistakenly claimed to be a Scot named William MacCall) the assembly rooms consisted of a ballroom (balls were held on a Wednesday evening during the season), supper room (where a rather meager repast was to be found) and game room. From the outset, Almack allowed his rooms to be goverened by a clique of titled and influential Lady Patronesses; entry to the hallowed inner rooms was strictly policed and good breeding rather than wealth was the key to a ticket. Inside was to be found dancing, gossiping and match-making; according to Captain Gronow, an officer in the guards and a friend to many of the elite including the famed Beau Brummell, Almack’s was ‘the seventh heaven of the fashionable world’.
Today, from one of Captain Gronow’s reminscences, we are going to take a closer look at an account of a Regency ball held at Almack’s during 1815. By this date, the assembly rooms were owned by Almack’s daughter, Elizabeth Pitcairn (her husband, David Pitcairn, physician extraordinary to the Prince of Wales, was first cousin to our ‘infamous mistress’, Grace Dalrymple Elliott).
The image above accompanied Gronow’s reminiscence, although the outfits worn are clearly later than 1815. Nevertheless, it depicts the dandy, Beau Brummell deep in conversation with the Duchess of Rutland. In the centre, the Comte de Saint Antonio, later the Duke of Cannizarro, is leading the Princess Esterhazy, who was the youngest Lady Patroness of Almack’s during the Regency, into a waltz. The princess, whose husband was the Austrian Ambassador to England, was described as being, ‘black, animated, and somewhat spiteful’ by Dorothea, Princess Lieven, wife of the Russian ambassador and an influential figure amongst the corps diplomatique, who nevertheless cheerfully admitted that she got on well with her. Sir George Warrender and the Comte de Sainte-Alegonde stand together on the right. The former was once a great friend of both Beau Brummell and the Prince Regent; a generous host, he gained the nickname, Sir George Provender.
Almack’s in 1815. — The personages delineated on the cover are well worthy of notice, both from the position they held in the fashionable world, and from their being represented with great truth and accuracy. The great George Brummell, the admirable Crichton of the age, stands in a dégagé attitude, with his fingers in his waistcoat pocket. His neckcloth is inimitable, and must have cost him much time and trouble to arrive at such perfection; as the following anecdote shows. A friend calling on the beau saw the valet with an armful of flowing white cravats, and asked him if his master wanted so many at once. “These, sir, are our failures,” was the reply. “Clean linen, and plenty of it,” was Brummell’s maxim. He is talking earnestly to the charming Duchess of Rutland, who was a Howard, and mother to the present Duke.
The tall man, in a black coat, who is preparing to waltz with Princess Esterhazy, so long ambassadress of Austria in London, is the Comte de St Antonio, afterwards Duke of Canizzaro. He resided many years in England, was a very handsome man, and a great lady-killer; he married an English heiress, Miss Johnson.
The original sketch from which these figures are taken, included also portraits of Charles, Marquis of Queensberry, Baron Neumann, at that time secretary of the Austrian Embassy; the late Sir George Warrender (who was styled by his friends Sir George Provender, being famed for his good dinners); and the handsome Comte St Aldegonde, afterwards a general, and at this period aide-de-camp to Louis Philippe, then Duke of Orleans.
The sketch was made in water-colours, from a group of these celebrities at a ball at Almack’s, and was given to Brummell by the artist who executed it; it was highly prized by the king of the dandies, and was purchased at the sale of his effects in Chapel Street by the person who gave it to me.
NB: Gronow talks about an ‘original sketch’ which included other Regency personalities and which had been owned by Brummell and later given to Gronow. For some reason, it would appear that Gronow had the sketch redrawn and possibly from memory? If so, it would be wonderful to rediscover the one which presumably shows those at the ball attired in full Regency fashion.
Museum of Painting and Sculpture, Or, Collection of the Principal Pictures, Statues and Bas-reliefs in the Public and Private Galleries of Europe, Volume 6 by Etienne Achille Réveil, 1829.
Letters of Dorothea, Princess Lieven, during her residence in London, 1812-1834. Edited by Lionel G. Robinson, 1902.
Anecdotes of celebrities of London and Paris: to which are added the last recollections of Captain Gronow, formerly of the First Foot Guards, volume 2, 1870.
Reminiscences of Captain Gronow, formerly of the Grenadier Guards: and M.P. for Stafford: being Anecdotes of the Camp, the Court and the Clubs at the close of the last war with France, Pickle Partners Publishing, 2011