In the early years of the 20th century a fever was sweeping through the country – pageant mania,. At http://www.historicalpageants.ac.uk/ you will find accounts of the Sherborne Pageant of 1905, “the mother of all pageants” and many others including Chelsea’s own Historical Pageant of 1908, the first in London.
Loyal readers will remember that I have written several posts about the Chelsea Pageant, mostly through the eyes and lens of the photographer Kate Pragnell, one of the first professional woman photographers. Feel free to go back to those posts and see some of the odd sights such as St George and a small lion (and the Dragon), druids, Romans, grey nuns and black nuns, Tudors and Stuarts, Nell Gwynne and several incarnations of Elizabeth I. In this post I’ll be mostly looking at the artwork of the Pageant.
The Chelsea Pageant was an event held in the grounds of the Royal Hospital to celebrate the history of Chelsea in ten episodes of dramatic performances, music and dancing. The performers were largely amateurs and the organisers were the great and the good of Chelsea, headed by Earl Cadogan but including two crucial figures in Chelsea Local History, Reginald Blunt, the historian and journalist who was one of the founders of the Chelsea Society and J Henry Quinn the Librarian at Chelsea Library. That’s what you see on the face of it, a festival of local history and identity.
But is there something deeper at work? At the optimistic start of a new century, looking forward to social and technological progress was some part of the Edwardian psyche yearning to connect with the stories of an older country. Look closely at the picture above, one of the commemorative set of postcards. On the Miracle Cart can you see a devil?
Why opt for a procession of black clad figures? What posessed this number of women to dress as nuns for the occasion?
We know that there were 1200 performers in the Pageant, most of them amateurs, all playing their part in the tableaux and ceremonies, all engaged with the mammoth task. Not to mention committee members, set constructors, authors of the ten episodes, musicians, dancers and designers. The sketches of the costume designer have survived.
His conception of Lady Sandys,….. and a photograph of the design as it was executed
The Princess Elizabeth:
Along with a remnant of the dress material
I found it slightly harder to locate the woman who wore the dress but I think she’s in this picture:
The one on the far left. I like this image. The women look like “ordinary” people and although the pose and the setting are far from authentically Tudor/Elizabethan the women look as though they belong in those costumes and feel comfortable in the fantasy. (Edwardian cosplay?)
Actually, I’m wrong about that. It’s a great picture and I couldn’t leave it out but I’ve now had a good look through a copy of “The Book of Words” as the longer version of the souvenir of the Pageant was called and I found this captioned picture of the actual Princess Elizabeth, played by a woman named Dawne O’Neill. Perhaps they used the dress pattern several times.
A full cast list was never provided by the organisers but we have identified some of them from an autographed copy of the Book of Words
I don’t thnk this one is in the picture either:
Here are some of the characters in postcard form:
Catherine Parr intercedes for Lady Jane. And as a photograph:
You can see the “real” Princess Elizabeth not doing too much acting third from the left and the other one behind her thinking “That could have been me”.
The signature of the designer, Tom Heslewood appears on some of these pictures like this one:
Which was easier to find:
Heslewood himself took part in the Pageant as an actor too, and secured a good role for himself:
Opposite an equally well known partner:
Here they are with Nell persuading the King to build the Royal Hospital
In the actual grounds of the Hospital of course. I’ve used this picture before but it belongs here:
I’ve wandered away from interpretation and gone back to simply admiring the pictures, colour and monochrome, and being grateful that J Henry Quinn and his staff took care to assemble a small archive about the Pageant.
The Pageant itself was not the sensation of the year. This was London after all with many competing attractions for the pleasure of the people. The ticket prices were high, the organisers couldn’t get the grounds for as long as they might have wanted, but it was a critical success and remains a colourful event in the history of Chelsea.
I’ve enjoyed going back to the Pageant after a long gap. There is still plenty of material to look at and a few stories to tell.
If you don’t mind indulging me this week’s post is dedicated to the memory of two school friends of mine: Carl Spencer who died in 1999 and Ian Thompson who died last week. Both of them were taken suddenly from their families and friends.