Kate at the Pageant 1: Ancient Britons and Galliard Dancers

The photographs in the Games for May post of the Chelsea Pageant (see link opposite) by Kate Pragnell were from the deleted scenes menu. When I looked into the official guides and souvenirs of the Pageant I found a great many more. A little research into Miss Pragnell herself showed that she was pretty remarkable. At the time of the Pageant she was one of only two women professional photographers in London, and the only one who regularly photographed men as well as women. She had a woman assistant who eventually took over the business and only worked with female technicians who she trained herself. As it says in the advertisement above which is from the programme she was the Pageant’s official photographer, with access to all areas as we would say today.

The Pageant involved hundreds of people and looks like it must have lasted for hours. Hence the need for refreshments of the kind seen above. Misspelling well known words is still seen as a way of indicating that something is ancient and traditional. The Pageant was divided into ten episodes so there is enough material for more than one post on the subject. So we can come back a couple of times..

The episodes range from the historically plausible to the unlikely. Episode one deals with the Roman Army fording the Thames at Chelsea, which might be perfectly possible but these scenes remind me of inaccurate 1940s historical films.

A group photos of the lads in Caesar’s army. Why do men in costume always look much less convincing than women? Is it that most of these guys suspect that they might look a little silly?

A studio shot of a woman I take to be a British chieftain’s wife, or a Boudicca type. She’s taking it much more seriously. The girl on the left is pictured several times. To me she has the look of one of the young heroines of an E Nesbitt fantasy. (This era seems to have spawned a good many of the fantasy archetypes that lasted us throughout the 20th century) Here are the two of them in context off to the right of the picture:

The bearded man is captioned as the Herald Bard. There seems to be a mixture of costumes in this scene but I’m most intrigued by the man with the archaic musical instrument and the robed figure next to him we can’t quite see. When I look at strange old photographs I want to write my own stories about them rather than stick to what I know and you could certainly make something of this.

Episode 2 was about the Synod of Chelsea for me a quite obscure theological event, but it does give me a chance to include another picture of some women dressed as nuns, which is a very popular internet search term (for some reason).

These are Grey Nuns as you can see by the caption, as opposed to the nuns dressed in black featured in Games for May. I don’t know if these ladies changed their habits for the later episode (the Funeral of Anne of Cleves) or if these were an entirely different group of women dressed as nuns. Or if this group later turned up in the eighteenth century as Ranelagh revellers. One thing we can be sure of is that a large number of people played parts in the Pageant and if there was an after show party it would have been worth attending.

Episode 3 was called May Day in Chelsea Fields 1500 and seems to have been put in to bridge a gap between the ancient and medieval scenes and the Tudor episodes, when the proper history began. The episode was mostly music and dancing. May Day is one of those semi-pagan Merrie England kind of things. Imagine the first scenes of Powell and Pressberger’s A Canterbury Tale.

Or looking at this picture, imagine an all female folk rock band from the 1970s. This could be the inside of the gatefold sleeve, for those of you who remember LPs. Just put in guitars, a mandolin, a fiddle etc. Just think of a name like the Silbury Angels, or Hexagram…

Or the Galliard Dancers:

And here is the Galliard Dance:

There were also gypsy dancers:

This is another studio portrait. Miss Pragnell like many photographers of the time took a lot of trouble over the backgrounds to studio shots, and in posing the subject in a convincing way as in this excellent study.

The candid shots are also pretty good. Look at this one of the children in the May Day episode:

Look at the boy in the group of four on the left wearing the same costume as the girls. He looks like he’s thinking how on earth did I let them persuade me to do this? The tall girl behind him has the look of a much put upon teenager also wishing she was somewhere else. Perhaps she looked at Kate the photographer and decided she should get a job like that when she was older.

We’ll be coming back to the Chelsea Pageant again to those warn and innocent June days at the beginning of the 20th century.

Other posts about the Chelsea Historical Pageant:

Kate at the Pageant 2: Tudor dreams

Kate at the Pageant 3: an adventure at Ranelagh


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