Tag Archives: Chelsea Arts Club Ball

The Arts Club Ball: some early costumes

I found today’s illustrations in one of our scrapbooks while looking for something else entirely, but they fit very well with other examples of fancy dress we’ve looked at on the blog.

The first costume balls associated with the Chelsea Arts Club were held in the artists’ studios in Manresa Road, the first in 1887 to celebrate their own Mardi Gras. Later they used Chelsea Town Hall but the first of the famous fancy dress balls was at the Royal Opera House in 1908. The first organiser George Sherwood Foster, emboldened by the success of the event decided to move to a bigger venue.The first at the Albert Hall was in 1910, where there was a huge space for dancing, the Great Floor.

The Ball was now an artistic  success and was making a modest profit. It was, according to the Illustrated London News “the greatest fancy dress ball ever held in London.”

ILN 1910 03

That year there were 4000 people on that dance floor. (The big chicken was probably a homage to Chanticler, a play whose characters were all birds which was a sensation on the Paris stage that year.)

Coverage followed in the other weekly illustrated magazines. The Graphic published this picture of rehearsals for the Ball in 1912:

Arts Club Ball 1912 green room combined - no caption

Some rather shady characters there, up to no good in a dimly lit room perhaps.

This double page spread from the Sphere on the other hand, shows guests taking a convenient rest between dancing at the 1912 Ball.

17 March 12 1916 CM1485

To appreciate the costumes you have to take a close-up look:

19 detail

Clowns, harlequins, characters from history, and minor deities sit together casually, a far cry from other costume balls we’ve seen on the blog. Other exotic young women disport themselves below, along with an early outing for the Guy Fawkes/V for Vendettta persona so popular at modern protests.

18 detail

An issue of the Sketch for March 5th 1913 featured photographs of some of the guests. The main theme was “the Goya period”, although only a few guests seem to have gone along with that idea.

05 Fair ladies and brave men

A group of “fair ladies and brave men.”

02 Miss P Lacon in manly garb

Miss P Lacon in “manly garb”.

07 Chess-board and Domino - mrs Richard Davis and Mr R Grey

“In chess board and domino”, Mrs Richard Davis and Mr R Grey

Below, Miss Heron as “a queen of Egypt”, “and a pharaoh” (any old pharaoh, played by an unknown gentleman).

06 Miss Heron as a Queen of Egypt and a pharoah06

The caption has to be quoted for these two “As Hitchy Koos: Mr Frank Levison, and a friend”

10 Hitchy Koos - Frank Levison and a friend

The reference is to a musical revue, although this seems to be quite an early usage.

On the same page Mr Cole as the Keeper

08 Keeper and bear - Mr and mrs Cole

With Mrs Cole sweating inside the bear costume. Hardly fair, is it?

I include the next one purely for the link to another post.

13 the red fisherman - Tom Heslewood

The Red Fisherman (don’t ask me) is portrayed by Mr Tom Heslewood, whom we previously encountered as the costume designer for the 1908 Chelsea Pageant. You can see some of his designs here.

By 1920 the Arts Club Ball was a regular feature of the artistic/social scene in London. The 1920 Ball had a theme of Pre-History (“By the genius of Augustus John” according to the Ladies Field magazine of December that year.)


As well as this Egyptian gentleman, there would be a “70 foot Sun Temple” in which an “everlasting flame” would burn, flanked by two huge canvases depicting the Paleozoic Era. Some reference is made to costumes of the Atlantians (Atlanteans I guess) so the designers obviously didn’t feel enslaved by historical facts.

And best of all there were some fanciful sketches of costumes from ancient history:

20 December 25 1920 CM1485 - Copy

To me these look like they belong in humorous pictures from the 50s or 60s, but maybe that’s me, remembering artists like Norman Thelwell, Osbert Lancaster and others.


Let’s leave the prehistoric folk now and go back to 1912. Did you notice who was standing in the background behind the lady in the face-concealing bonnet?

Is that the Michelin Man?

19a detail - Copy

Bibendum, as he is properly known, is one of the oldest trademarks, first seen in 1894, so his presence here is no anachronism. The Michelin House building in the Fulham Road was opened in 1911 so he’s bang up to date for the 1912 Ball. I cannot resist one final picture I stumbled across in the Illustrated London News while looking for more coverage of the Ball.

ILN 1910 01 - Copy

He was no stranger to carnivals.


Background detail on the origin of the Arts Club Ball came from Tom Cross’s book Artists and Bohemians. The Chelsea Arts Club has its own archive relating to the history of the Club and the Ball which is open to researchers.

A meal you can shake hands with in the dark: the Arts Club Ball

There comes an affair in the tides of men
When you can’t go back again
Yes there comes a darkness in the affairs of light
When you can’t hold back the night
So you go where your mind will keep
Where the rain plays the restless to sleep
On the notes of a broken piano

1953 street

1950s papier mache apocalypse? Carnival mishap? The set of a Jan Svankmaier film? None of those.

What about a woman with a tail?

CACB 001 - Copy

We’ve got one of those.

And an elephant, ready to dance. Some kind of elephant anyway.

1958 elephant

And we’ve got a strange object on wheels with young women balanced on it.


What does it all mean? Well obviously, the Chelsea Arts Club Ball.

It’s a dance.


It’s a giant costume party.

Some of the costumes look good, like this couple.


Some maybe not.


(What is that man doing?)

It’s also an artistic event.

Laughing devils break out of…something.


Exuberant costumes.

CACB 1953 008
More exuberant costumes.


Maybe we could get those guys out of here. We’ve had enough mishapen heads for one night.


On with the party. See, it’s in full swing now. How did Richard Nixon get in?


The climax will be spectacular…..

CAC Royal Albert Hall 1954-59 Ronald Searle seven seas

The party stopped in the end but for a long while the fun was endless.

I’m going to a wedding
I’m going to a wedding dressed in black
I’m going to a party
I’m going to party, won’t be back

I’m going to a funeral
I’m going to a funeral dressed in white
I’m going to a nightclub
I’m going to a nightclub to sleep with night


For quite a few years the Chelsea Arts Club, that ancient haven for artists and bohemians has kept its archive in our sub-basement. I’ve been happy to look after it. but now they have their own search room which can be visited by the serious researcher and the curious amateur alike.  In remembrance of their stay with us they’ve let me use some of their pictures of the Arts Club Ball. My thanks to Stephen Bartley.

The poet Pete Brown made albums with the group Piblokto including “Things may come and things may go but the art school dance goes on forever” which I referred to in a previous post. His first band was called the Battered Ornaments and from them I got the title of this post, a phrase I have always admired. I don’t believe he ever had anything to do with the the Ball but I’ve always loved his lyrics, particularly the songs he wrote with Jack Bruce. The lyrics quoted above are from “He the Richmond” and “Weird of Hermiston” from the Jack Bruce album Songs for a Tailor.


The art school dance

I am reliably informed that the bus in this picture is an AEC Regent with a Park Royal roofbox body and restricted blinds and that the days when the 73 wheezed along as far as Richmond are now distant memories. My transport correspondent also noticed that there were some odd people crossing the road in front of the bus. Those would be art students I replied.

We sometimes think of the 1950s as those grey days between the war torn 1940s and the mind-expanding 1960s. It’s true that there was a great deal of austerity and conformity in the 50s but there were also great steps forward in fashion, music, theatre, architecture, arts and of course having a good time.

For much of the time art students got on with the business of education. Here are some of them sketching in the open air at Sloane Square:

And in Sydney Street:

Even in a studio:

(Apologies to those who might be offended by it for the slight amount of bare flesh in this picture. As it comes from the Central Office of Information this is government-sponsored nudity.)

At other times the art students were just doing what students normally do. Hanging around trying to look cool:

This group are definitely succeeding in looking good in the fifties. But there was other work to be done too such as making big feet:

And big heads:

Not to mention dressing up:

After all that all they had to do was present themselves at the doors of the Albert Hall either on foot:

Or even by car:

Get the big heads on:

And finally have an enormous fancy dress party:

Later on in the 1960s there was an album by the now obscure group Pete Brown’s Piblokto called “Things may come and things may go but the arts school dance goes on forever”. Not quite forever maybe but back in the pleasure seeking fifties it must have seemed like the fun would never end.

The big party was the Chelsea Arts Club Ball. Art students from all over London contributed to this annual event which ran from the early days of the Arts Club in 1908 until 1958 when it finally ceased in that form at least.

If you’ve got your costume ready we can step into the time machine….

Pictures this week came from the former government department the Central Office of Information, the library’s John Bignell collection and the archive of the Chelsea Arts Club.

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