The Regency Wardrobe collection - research & making - Eyes of the Dragon
Venice is of course renowned as the capital of the mask wearing world and certainly masquerade balls became a feature of the Carnival season as early as the 15th century, involving "...increasingly elaborate allegorical Royal Entries, pageants, and triumphal processions celebrating marriages and other dynastic events of late medieval court life..."
"Masquerade balls were extended into costumed public festivities in Italy during the 16th century Renaissance (Italian, maschera). They were generally elaborate dances held for members of the upper classes..." But: "With the fall of the Venetian Republic at the end of the 18th century, the use and tradition of masks gradually began to decline..."
That said, shops selling masks remain dotted throughout the narrow lanes of the city of Venice even today.
"Masquerades were introduced to London by the Swiss count Johann Jacob Heidegger, who first came across them in Italy and originally staged them in London theatres. After Vauxhall Gardens opened to the paying public in 1729...later, Ranelagh Gardens in 1741...they became obvious venues for such lavish and fashionable entertainments."
In Britain as in Italy most of these events tended to be the preserve of those who were sufficiently wealthy as to be able to afford the expensive ticket prices "...often as much as one guinea, or a week’s earnings for a skilled labourer..." Many were held to celebrate significant public events, such as the end of a war or a royal birthday.
In 1795 The Prince of Wales, the future Prince Regent, attended a masked ball in Brighton: https://brightonmuseums.org.uk/discover/2012/10/05/brighton-news-story-5-october-1795-masquerade-ball-in-brighton/
Ths was before the era of his own Royal Pavilion as we know it today, so one might assume that George was a visitor and not the host of this party.
"In 1787, after much pleading and many promises by the Prince of Wales, the House of Commons agreed to clear his debts and increase his income.George hired architect Henry Holland to transform his Brighton lodging house into a modest villa which became known as the Marine Pavilion. With his love of visual arts and fascination with the mythical orient, George set about lavishly furnishing and decorating his seaside home. He especially chose Chinese export furniture and objects, and hand-painted Chinese wallpapers.In 1811 George was sworn in as Prince Regent because his father, George III, had been deemed incapable of acting as monarch...At that time the Marine Pavilion was a modest building in size, not suitable for the large social events and entertaining that George loved to host...In 1815, George commissioned John Nash to begin the transformation from modest villa into the magnificent oriental palace that we see today...George’s presence had an enormous impact on the prosperity and social development of Brighton from the 1780s. Brighton’s population grew significantly, from around 3,620 inhabitants in 1786 to 40,634 in 1831. The rebuilding of the prince’s home provided work for local tradesmen, labourers and craftsmen. The presence in the town of the court, George’s guests, members of society and the Royal Household provided invaluable business for local builders and the service industries.".
Bayswater Masquerade Pre Admission Ticket January 1818. Image © British Museum
Summer tended to encourage open-air balls and ridottos but in the winter, at Christmas and New Year, the masquerade season would begin.
According to the Picture of London 1810 by John Feltham public masquerades took place at the Argyle Rooms, the Opera House and the Pantheon. In the diary of the exhibitions and amusements of London for the month of January it states:
"...In the course of this and the ensuing five months masquerades are occasionally held at the Opera-house, and the Pantheon, always previously advertised in the newspapers, admission 10s 6d, 1l 1s and 2l 2s and dresses may be hired at the masquerade warehouses, from 5s to 2l 2s each."
Masquerade at the Pantheon (cropped) from The Microcosm of London Vol 2(1808-10)
But quickly enough such events had gained quite the reputation. Perhaps by its very nature the mask is believed by many to give licence to, or to encourage, duplicitous behaviour. Certainly it was believed and has been often written that such deeds as would have been considered too risqué to take part in whilst uncovered were given licence on those occasions when participants came disguised. And it is generally believed that the decline of the masquerade’s popularity coincided with increased public moralism during the 19th century. Although ‘fancy dress balls’ would remain a form of fashionable entertainment, they would be respectable and harmless affairs comparatively.
It's certain that by the end of the 18th century and into the formal Regency masquerades became beloved of those who loved to party and George IV, whilst he was yet the Prince of Wales and then the Prince Regent, was chief amongst their number.
But Meg Kobza, a third-year PhD candidate at Newcastle University argues that instead of always being a: "... carnivalesque and debaucherous entertainment that flouted social distinctions...the masquerade was an exclusionary entertainment, moving horizontally between sites of social differentiation including opera houses, pleasure gardens, assembly rooms, and country houses." Nonetheless during her study, as fellow in the Royal Archives, she found bills of sale that would seem to support at least the reputation The Price of Wales had for excessive spending. She writes: "The Prince of Wales certainly had a sense of humour and a creative streak, exhibited through his choices of costume and continual purchases of fake noses...." Just one bill of sale indicates the purchase of 4 fake noses at 8 shillings per piece".
"The chronology of these purchases gives additional insight regarding the lifespan of the masquerade habit and the consumer experience. As the bill of sale shows, the Prince of Wales purchased a ‘Black Bumbaset Friars Dress’ and domino on May 14th, followed by two new ‘Old Ladys Dresses’ less than two weeks later. The recurring purchases of dominos and character costumes, specifically the old lady habit (bought again in 1803), present the masquerade habit as a single-wear item. Newspaper reports and supplementary manuscript accounts reveal comparable habits among the beau monde, showing that the habit of wearing new habits was not exclusive to the nobility. The listed prices for masks, habits, and accessories were not unique to His Royal Highness either. Masquerade warehouses sold masks at an average of five shillings and dominos at ten shillings and six pence, making the minimum cost of a costume fifteen shillings and six pence. This expense, when combined with the purchase of a two guinea ticket, was far from affordable and limited 96% of London’s population from attending the masquerade, however infrequent."
"While the Prince of Wales’s records of the masquerade are the only remaining ones in the Royal Archive, he was not the first of the Hanoverians to frequent this expensive leisure entertainment. George’s grandfather, Frederick, Prince of Wales, and great-grandfather, King George II, were both patrons of the subscription masquerade in its earlier days. Like George IV, they attended several subscription masquerades at King’s Theatre, which were hosted by the impresario J. Heidegger. Though masquerades were often under the censure of the Bishop of London during the first half of the century, George II so enjoyed them that he declared, ‘that whilst there were Masquerades, he wou’d go to them’ in front of the Bishop himself. Given the history of strained relationships between Hanoverian fathers and sons, it not surprising that George III took an opposing stance and strongly disapproved of his children ever attending the masquerade. After learning of the Prince of Wales’s attendance at a masquerade in 1780, George III made his opinion very clear, warning, ‘you already know my disapprobation of [Masquerades] in this Country, and I cannot by any means agree to any of my children ever going to them’. Despite, or perhaps in spite of, his father’s objections to the masquerade, the Prince of Wales continued to attend those held at the Pantheon and Carlisle House with newspaper reports, manuscripts, and account books providing a paper trail of his habits".
For novel takes on the masquerade ball see:
This dragon mask takes its inspiration from the magnificent chandelier in the Banqueting Room of the Royal Pavilion, where surely The Prince Regent enjoyed many an evening of high reverie. The dragon Chandelier was designed by the mysterious and elusive artist Robert Jones, one of the principal interior decorators of the Pavilion, responsible for many of the final designs after 1815. It is maybe the most stunning but in only one of many to be found around the building. I love also those that are painted on the glass in the entrance area. And true to the gold and red colouring of the chandelier I had to use red and gold and white so that the mask be imagined to have been worn by the lady in the Regency ball dress. Please see my blog post about my Regency ball gown titled Fading Glory.
For more about the Pavilion dragons please see:
The Regency Wardrobe will be exhibited at Firle Place, in May 2021. As soon as the collection has been shown more images of all the pieces will be made visible on stephaniesmart.net
This project is being supported by:
Arts Council England, The Textile Society and Great Art