The Next Dance, George Goodwin Kilburne,

Madame de Staël in London

14th July 1817 saw the demise of the Swiss author, woman of letters and political thinker, aged 51, Madame Germaine de Staël.  She was regarded as a witty socialite and always wore the most fashionable if daring clothing. Living through the French Revolution and opposed to Napoleon, she spent much of the time in exile.

Madame de Staël by François Gérard
Madame de Staël by François Gérard

In late June 1813, she arrived in London, with her daughter and was seen at all the fashionable places and social events, proving herself to be exceptionally popular and invited to all the best society parties. The newspapers were full of details of her attendance at events – everyone wanted to meet her.

Little known fact – she had ugly feet!

The presence of Madame de Staël in London has set all the journalists and magazine writers at work, to collect anecdotes of her conversational powers, her age, her appearance, her fine arm and her ugly feet. With respect to the latter, the following story is told. The French are famous for their neat quibbles – Madame de Staël was once at a place in Paris, where there was a pedestal, which, vain of her arm, she mounted, and put herself in an attitude to display it; but unluckily, which in this situation, she exhibited one of her feet. A French wit approached, and pretending to look more immediately at the pedestal, without noticing her feet, exclaimed ‘O le villain Pie-De-Stal!’

Windsor and Eton Express 01 August 1813

During her stay in London, she took great interest in the British education system and the newspapers reported her visits to various schools in London; she also managed a visit to Oxford University in December 1813.

H.R.H. the Prince Regent received by the University and City of Oxford, June 14, 1814 by George Jones.
H.R.H. the Prince Regent received by the University and City of Oxford, June 14, 1814, by George Jones; The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology.

In 1814 Paris had surrendered to the Allied troops and Napoléon, when he saw there was no option left, had abdicated his position of Emperor, surrendered to his opponents on 11th April and was exiled to the island of Elba.

“L’empereur Napoleon Ier (1769-1821) signant son abdication au chateau de Fontainebleau le 4/04/1814” Detail Peinture de Gaetano Ferri (1822-1896) d’apres Francois Bouchot (1800-1842) 1843 Dim 1,3×1,61 m Versailles, Musee du chateau ©DeAgostini/Leemage

This was regarded as a cause for celebration and we came across a report of her attendance as one of the honoured guests, at a ‘Fete’ in honour of The Peace. The account gave such a detailed description of the venue we simply had to share it with you.

On Friday night Breadalbane House in Park Lane was opened, for the first time two years, with a Fete, given expressly in honour of the late glorious change in the political hemisphere. To this entertainment were invited all the illustrious branches of the House of Bourbon. The most distinguished personages, the most fashionable youth of both sexes were present and exhibited an emulous display of the most superb dresses, enchanting beauty, and refined wit.

Lord Petre's (later Breadalbane) House (demolished), plans in 1783. 'Park Lane', in Survey of London: Volume 40, the Grosvenor Estate in Mayfair, Part 2 (The Buildings), ed. F H W Sheppard (London, 1980), pp. 264-289. British History Online
Lord Petre’s (later Breadalbane) House (demolished), plans in 1783. ‘Park Lane’, in Survey of London: Volume 40, the Grosvenor Estate in Mayfair, Part 2 (The Buildings), ed. F H W Sheppard (London, 1980), pp. 264-289. British History Online

On entering, the company were introduced into a hall, decorated with natural and artificial flowers, curiously interwoven, among which the white rose and laurel leaves were conspicuously blended.

The Next Dance, George Goodwin Kilburne,
The Next Dance, George Goodwin Kilburne, Wikimedia Commons

Ascending the grand geometrical staircase (a fine piece of architecture), a very pleasing object presented itself to view; it was festoons, garlands and wreaths of white roses and laurel leaves. In the principal room appeared objects of singular splendour, superb mirrors, ottomans, chairs, sofas, fauteuils, and jardinières of burnished gold, exquisite paintings with all the warmth and colouring of the Italian school; bronzes, porcelain and ormolu; inestimable specimens of rare bijoutry and other articles of vertu.

Here the floor was painted in watercolours, in which the artist inimitably described the fall of despotism by allegorical figures, with the rising sun of the Capets, personified by a bust of Louis XVIII. ‘Vivent Les Bourbons’ and the lily appeared on every side.

A Ballroom by Patrick William Adam
A Ballroom by Patrick William Adam; City of Edinburgh Council

It is impossible to give a just idea of the charming coup d’oeil presented by the former capacious room lighted by superb chandeliers and filled with elegant dancers. The music commenced at half-past eleven o’clock, with ‘The White Cockade’ led off by the Earl of Kinnoull and Lady Elizabeth Campbell. Next followed the Prince Regent. A double set was increased by four. The spirit and animation displayed were uncommonly gratifying and without prejudice, we may stage, that Lady Elizabeth Campbell excelled.

Thomas Robert Hay, Eleventh Earl of Kinnoull (1785–1866) by Sir Henry Raeburn, 1815.
Thomas Robert Hay, Eleventh Earl of Kinnoull (1785–1866) by Sir Henry Raeburn, 1815. North Carolina Museum of Art

The waltzing commenced at one o’clock. Here was an admirable display of refinement in that mode of exhibiting ‘the light fantastic toe’. The Duke of Devonshire and Miss Mercer Elphinstone; Lord Maitland and Lady Susan Ryder; Earl of Fife and Lady Westmorland; Countess of Jersey and the Hon. Mrs Fitzroy. At two o’clock supper was announced. The company promenaded down the stairs into the library. On the staircase were the colours of the different Allies – Russia. Austria, Prussia and England.

Miss Mercer Elphinstone
Miss Mercer Elphinstone

Here another object of powerful influence rivetted the attention of every individual; it was a display of gold plate, antique and exquisitely wrought. These glittering objects, dazzling the senses into confusion – candelabras, tripods, urns, cups and salvers. A horseshoe table in this room and several long ones in the two adjoining apartments supped two hundred and fifty persons.

Regency dinner table.
Image sourced via Pinterest.

The most exquisite wines, the costliest preserves, the finest pineapples, grapes and produce of hot and succession houses, were in abundance. In short, everything that could recommend an entertainment was remembered.

Study of Fruit by George Gray
Study of Fruit by George Gray; Laing Art Gallery

Adding not a little to the effect may be enumerated the lighting of upwards of 200 wax candles, were used. Although the crowded rooms produced heat, the effect was not disagreeable, owing no doubt, to the use of wax instead of oil. The latter is a most pernicious custom, and we are happy to hear, will be nearly exploded this season, the Marchioness of Salisbury having likewise set the example.

Highest Life in London Society.
Highest Life in London Society. NYPL

The dancing recommenced with reels, at three o’clock and the whole concluded at six in the morning. An elegant dejeune was then served up, and the visitants soon after retired.

By September 1814, Madame de Staël had returned to Paris and was apparently

no longer in vogue. Her literary vagaries found no countenance from the French Court, and as for the middling classes, these persons do not understand, or even attempt to read her works.

We can share with you an interesting comment made by our Georgian Heroine, Mrs (Rachel) Charlotte Williams Biggs, written to a close friend in early April 1814, which conjured up quite an amusing image.

Clearly, Charlotte’s perception of Madame de Staël was somewhat different from views elsewhere expressed about her relationship with Napoleon. Could she see that Madame de Staël would fall out of favour?

Madame de Staël & her disciples will now be out of fashion & I doubt not but that she feels disappointed and mortified – she liked the principle of Buonaparte’s power, and only objected to that portion of it which was exercised against herself – I recommend the sending all these people to Elba, they would be like confined spiders & soon destroy each other.

A Georgian Heroine: The Intriguing Life of Rachel Charlotte Williams Biggs. The bizarre but true story of an astounding woman persevering in a man’s world

Sources: 

Morning Chronicle 22 June 1813

Liverpool Mercury 31 December 1813

Morning Post 30 March 1814

Morning Post 25 April 1814

Morning Post 17 September 1814

Sketch of a ball at Almack's 1815, from The reminiscences and recollections of Captain Gronow, being anecdotes of the camp, court, clubs and society, 1810-1860. Beau Brummell is to the left, deep in conversation with the Duchess of Rutland.

Sketch of a Ball at Almack’s, 1815

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’.

View of the Almack's Ball Room on the south side of King Street, St James's Square, built in 1765. By Thomas Hosmer Shepherd.
View of the Almack’s Ball Room on the south side of King Street, St James’s Square, built in 1765. By Thomas Hosmer Shepherd. © The Trustees of the British Museum

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).

Sketch of a ball at Almack's 1815, from The reminiscences and recollections of Captain Gronow, being anecdotes of the camp, court, clubs and society, 1810-1860. Beau Brummell is to the left, deep in conversation with the Duchess of Rutland.
Sketch of a ball at Almack’s 1815, from The reminiscences and recollections of Captain Gronow, being anecdotes of the camp, court, clubs and society, 1810-1860.

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.

The Regency Dandy, Beau Brummell
Beau Brummell

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.

Elizabeth (Howard), Duchess of Rutland, 1780 - 1825. Daughter of the 5th Earl of Carlisle; wife of John, 5th Duke of Rutland. By Samuel Cousins; after George Sanders
Elizabeth (Howard), Duchess of Rutland, 1780 – 1825. Daughter of the 5th Earl of Carlisle; wife of John, 5th Duke of Rutland. By Samuel Cousins; after George Sanders; National Galleries of Scotland.

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.

Maria Theresia, née Princess von Thurn und Taxis and wife of Prince Paul Anton Esterházy III
Maria Theresia, née Princess von Thurn und Taxis and wife of Prince Paul Anton Esterházy III (www.esterhazy.at)

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.

Camille de Sainte-Aldegonde is one of the two men in the background, in the suite of the Duke of Orleans who is on horseback, in the uniform of colonel-general of the Hussars reviewing the troops and giving orders to Colonel Oudinot. Engraving after a picture by Horace Vernet, 1817.
Camille de Sainte-Aldegonde is one of the two men in the background, in the suite of the Duke of Orleans who is on horseback, in the uniform of colonel-general of the Hussars reviewing the troops and giving orders to Colonel Oudinot. Engraving after a picture by Horace Vernet, 1817. Royal Collection Trust.

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.

Sources:

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