You may have heard the Fortean story of Miss Moberly and Miss Jourdain who went for a walk at Versailles one sunny afternoon in 1901 and found themselves back in the 18th century, where they saw Marie Antoinette. Or so they thought. After thinking about their experience for some time and doing some historical research they wrote a pseudonymous account simply called “An adventure”. Some writers called it a form of imaginative hallucination, others found rational explanations. I always wonder why the people in the past didn’t notice two strangely dressed English women in their midst. Pick out several time travelers in this picture among the 18th century people:
Episode 10 of the Chelsea Pageant was particularly appropriate. It was set in the 18th century pleasure gardens in the grounds of Ranelagh House, and the performance was taking place on the site of the Gardens.
Performers from the Pageant would be suitable subjects for another experiment in time travel. They’re already dressed for the part after all. But who to send?
Those guys, who are dressed as Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, men of letters, from Episode 9. They both look like they’d enjoy themselves, especially Mr Steele, the one on the right. Unfortunately the real men were dead by 1741 when the Gardens opened. But this trip back is to meet someone in particular. One of the non-speaking roles in the Pageant was a Miss Chudleigh. Could one of the ladies in this picture be playing her?
I’m thinking of one of these three:
They look like they could blend in with the crowd at Ranelagh. So let’s go.
Our trio can slip in among the daytime crowd. It’s early in the day in this view. Later on things will get a little hectic.
The building in the centre is the Rotunda. When the theatrical entrepreneurs and MP Sir Thomas Robinson bought the house and grounds belonging to the late Earl of Ranelagh they wanted something that would give their new venture the edge over the already established Vauxhall Gardens, south of the river but not too far away. The Rotunda was their answer. The domed structure was the same size as the Pantheon in Rome. Inside there was room for music, dancing, refreshments and that perennial 18th century pastime walking around looking good and seeing who else was there and what they were wearing.
The large structure in the centre supported the roof. It was originally a place for the orchestra, but the acoustics were no good apparently so the musicians moved to the side. Here is a view by Canaletto:
The boxes around the walls were small rooms which could be hired individually. Visitors could have meals served in them, or engage in other private activities. Ranelagh was open for visitors three days a week. There were morning and evening concerts, balloon ascents and other fireworks on special occasions. The most exclusive set of patrons thought it best to arrive after the last concert about 11 pm. The social gatherings went on for several hours more, often until dawn.
Our time traveling trio can mingle with the eminent and fashionable people of the day. Derby and Dawson of Cheyne Walk, the firm who provided costumes for the Pageant dealt in authentic 18th century clothing so no-one will penetrate their disguises. Many visitors to Ranelagh wore masks like Venetian carnival-goers.
Others wore more extravagant outfits as in this satirical, presumably slightly exaggerated view:
Cartoonists have always liked extreme hairstyles.
Others returned home the worse for the night’s festivities.
Our 20th century travelers are too careful for that. Remember I’ve sent them back on a mission. Look at these two images of the Venetian Masquerade on April 26th 1749.
There’s Mr Punch on the left and a host of exotic carnival characters both holy and unholy.
Do you see the difference? For some Ranelagh magic save both pictures and view them in rapid succession in your picture manager.
We’ll find the person we’re looking for next week, when we may also see our friend Mrs Rush. In the words of a 20th century pleasure seeker: “Hear all proper. Angel trumpets and devil trombones. You are invited.”
You can find a full account of the Versailles adventure in the August 2011 issue of Fortean Times or on wikipedia under the heading Moberly-Jourdain Incident.
Other posts about the Chelsea Historical Pageant: