Back to Royal Albert Hall The Duchess of Devonshire's Ball 1897 - later used as theme for the Fête at Versailles - Royal Albert Hall 1913
Courts Represented Courts Represented
Costumes Costumes at the Ball
Non-royal guests Non-royal Guest List
All details from the contemporary newspaper - "The Times" ...

Of all the private entertainments for which the Jubilee has provided the occasion, none is comparable with the magnificent fancy dress ball given last night at Devonshire House by the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire.

Amid all the public excitements of the last few weeks, when the world, one might have thought, has been sufficiently occupied with the procession, the two reviews, and the garden party, the inner circle of what is still called society has preserved in the background of its mind an anxious preoccupation - namely, how it was to appear at Devonshire-house, supposing it was fortunate enough to be asked. Never in our times has so much attention been paid to old family pictures, never have the masterpieces of portraiture in the National Gallery been so carefully studied, while for weeks past the Print-room at the British Museum, commonly given up to quiet students, has been invaded by smart ladies and gentlemen anxious to search the prints and drawings of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries for something in which they could obey the Duchess's summons to appear "in an allegorical or historical costume dated earlier than 1820".

Never in our time have the costumiers been so busy, and the houses so well-known to everybody who has ever organized private theatricals, such as Messrs. John Simmons, of the Haymarket, Messrs Nathan, and Messrs Alias, have been driven distracted with orders and counter-orders. As usual on such occasions, the gentlemen, it is said, have proved far more exacting than the ladies; for the stronger sex, when once it makes up its mind to desert the sobriety of plain broadcloth, knows no limit to its requirements or to its suddenly developed fastidiousness. But, whatever may have been the anxieties and the difficulties of the preparation, there can be no doubt as to the splendour and beauty of the result. It is 23 years since a ball of similar design and magnificence was given. We are referring to the famous ball at Marlborough House on July 22, 1874. Many of those who were present last night were present also at the earlier festivity, and those who were, or those who have read the full account that was published in "The Times" on the following day, will find it difficult to award the palm for Royal magnificence and good taste.

In one respect there was a considerable difference, for, whereas the Prince of Wales's ball had a number of distinct quadrilles - a Venetian quadrille, a Vandyck quadrille, and a pack of cards quadrille - the innovation of yesterday was the idea of different Courts headed by various well-known ladies and attended by their friends as Princes and courtiers.

The Royal party itself fell in very readily with this idea, and attended in historical and mostly Royal costumes of the 16th century. There were four Courts strictly so-called, besides two groups which were separately arranged, but which are only to be called Courts by an extension of the term. The four were the Elizabethan Court, headed by Lady Tweedmouth as Queen Elizabeth with Sir Francis Jeune as Lord Chief Justice, Lord Arran a Cardinal, and Lord Rowton as Archibishop Farrer; the Louis XV and XVI. Court, with Lady Curzon as Queen Marie Leczinska and Lady Warwick as Marie Antoinette; the Court of Maria Theresa with Lady Londonderry as the Empress, Lord Lansdowne as Prince Kaunitz, and Lady Lansdowne as Lady Keith; and the Court of the Empress Catherine II of Russia, its Imperial centre being Lady Raincliffe. Of equal importance with these Courts were the group of Orientals and the Italian procession, the chief members of the former being the hostess herself, the Duchess of Devonshire as Zenobia, Lady de Grey as Lysistrate, and Lady Cynthia Graham as the Queen of Sheba; while the latter, which covered not only the great period of Italian art but the 17th century as well, was made illustrious both by the beauty of the dresses and by the great distinction of many of those who wore them.

No great alterations had been made in the house itself for the entertainment, for, as is well known, the fine circular staircase and the great suit of rooms on the 1st floor have few rivals in London for any function of the kind. On this occasion the only changes made were that the Duke and Duchess had kindly consented to be banished from their own private rooms at either end of the building, which were thrown into the series of saloons; that the first room to the right was fitted with a dais for the Royal party, past which at a certain period the whole company filed; and that a large supper-tent had been erected in the garden, to which access was obtained by a temporary staircase from the house. In this tent were hung three fine old Louis XIV tapestries representing Roman scenes; these were lent by Messrs. Duveen.

Nothing could be more fanciful than the system of lighting this tent - a series of festoons of flowers from which at intervals there shone the electric light, the effect upon the gay dresses and the powdered heads of the fascinating groups below being marvellously gay and sparkling. But it may be said that the electric light and the people themselves were the only modern things there, for not a guest, not a musician, not a herald, not a servant, nay, not even any of the waiting-maids who helped the ladies in the cloak-room was permitted to appear in a dress later than the beginning of the century.

The invitations were for half-past 10, and people came early, anxious to see the beginning, middle, and end of an entertainment so exceptional and so amusing. At the head of the staircase stood the Duke of Devonshire, in the dress of Charles V - the Hapsburgs and the Cavendishes are curiously alike in feature - and wearing a genuine collar and badge of the Golden Fleece, lent him by the Prince of Wales. With him was the Duchess, as Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, her dress a marvel of soft tissues and exquisite ornament, and her tiara a still greater marvel of the jeweller's art. The company filed past - Italians of the Renaissance; French Princes and Princesses of every age; Napoleons and Josephines (one or two of the latter very successful indeed); English beauties of the 18th century, among whom three young girls were noticeable as Reynold's "Three Ladies Waldegrave"; French marquises, with brocaded dresses and powdered hair; Orientals of times long gone by and of the other day; Cavaliers and Puritans - everything, in a word, that lent itself to fine dresses or historical retrospect. Many well-known men were arrayed in the dresses of their family, conspicuous among them being Sir William Harcourt as Lord Chancellor Harcourt, in a flowing dark wig in the Charles II manner. Lord Ribblesdale, after the Lawrence picture of his grandfather; and many more. Others took dresses in sympathy with their characters. Mr. Asquith was notable as a Roundhead, Sir Francis Jeune as Chief Justice Popham, the Lord Chancellor in a Georgian gentleman's dress, Sir Edward Poynter as Titian, Lord Arran as a cardinal, and Lord Rowton, to the amusement of his friends, as Archbishop Parker. It would, however, be impossible to name a tithe of the interesting and successful dresses, whether of men or women; let it suffice to say that the "Courts" were one and all triumphant displays, while such dresses as those of Lady Rothschild, after Holbein's Lady Vaux, of Messrs. Ferdinand and Alfred Rothschild, as an Austrian and French noble of the 16th century, were of extraordinary truth and beauty.

About 11 the National Anthem announced the arrival of the Royal party, who were dressed, like the rest of the company, in character, and some of whose costumes we describe elsewhere. They took their seats on the dais, and immediately the "processions" began, each Court advancing in order, bowing, and passing on. This over, the quadrilles began - very stately and sumptuous, the Italian quadrille perhaps bearing the palm. Nothing more harmonious could well be imagined than these slow dances, walked through by magnificently dressed men and by women whose beauty and jewelled costumes set off one another with all the charm of something strange, exceptional, and unique. Waltzes followed, and a good many of the heroes and heroines were young enough and energetic enough to dance, in spite of unfamiliar cloaks and hats and dresses of strange forms. Then came lounging in the garden, which was a fairyland of lights; supper in the tent; and the morning hours were well advanced before the 700 guests had dispersed homewards, to awake to-day upon a world that must indeed seem commonplace in comparison with the jewelled page of romance upon which, for a moment, they gazed last night.