Tag Archives: Chelsea Historical Pageant

Rite of spring: Mr Ruskin’s May Queen

Ruskin and Rossetti VAW copy

John Ruskin wouldn’t sit down for this picture. However poor the state of his health he felt it was unthinkable for him to sit in the presence of Rossetti so the great artist held him up. Ruskin was a man of high ideals and aesthetic principles. He had been one of the early supporters of the Pre-Raphaelites so Rossetti’s loose morals and the strange ménage at Tudor House wouldn’t have bothered him. But nevertheless it would have been hard to find two more unlikely companions in the whole of Victorian England. Rossetti represents the sensual side of the Victorian imagination let loose about as much as it could be. Ruskin of course represents the repressed imagination and it was that respectable side of his nature which drew him into collaboration with John Faunthorpe the Principal of the teacher training establishment in the King’s Road, Whitelands College.

Copy of Whitelands College PC109C

1902 John Faunthorpe from 1924 WA

[John Faunthorpe 1902]

Faunthorpe was a fan of Ruskin’s. He admired the great man extravagantly, idolised him even. So in1880 inspired by Ruskin  he floated the idea of starting a May Queen Festival at the College. Ruskin had form in this area, he had tried to start something similar at a school in Cheshire but parents had objected (Ruskin’s divorce / annulment from his marriage with Effie Gray and her subsequent marriage to Millais had been a great scandal). Between them the two men worked something out which combined Ruskin’s love of picturesque old English ritual and Faunthorpe’s desire for high Anglican ceremony. The notion of a may queen may also have appealed to  Ruskin because it involved pretty young women for whom he had a sentimental regard after the failure of his marriage and the derailment of his romance with Rose La Touche. The Victorians in general were given to sentimentalizing youth (perhaps because they frequently saw it snatched away by sudden disease and death, the very fate of Rose la Touche who died at the age of 27).

Ruskin donated a set of his books each year to be handed out by the new Queen, and paid for the design of the first in a series of crosses which were given to each Queen. The May Queen was chosen by the votes of the students (she should be “the lovablest and the likeablest” was Ruskin’s mawkish guidance to the voters). The first was Queen Ellen I.

1881 Queen Ellen I

Unfortunately for the ceremony Ellen was in mourning at the time and wearing black so a white shawl was found for her to wear. Ruskin pestered Faunthorpe for a photograph and then rather ungraciously said the Queen looked like she was 38. (She was 20). Although he did visit the College regularly he never attended the May Day ceremony. Perhaps he preferred the festival as a romantic ideal. After Queen Ellen the Queen and her maidens had dresses made for the occasion.

Ruskin had his protégé Kate Greenaway design a dress for the Queen which was passed on for four years.

1891 Queen Jessie 02

[Queen Jessie 1891]

But as the Festival continued it became customary for former queens to return and take part in the festival so the Queen needed a unique outfit.

1892 Queen Elizabeth II 02

[A small and faded view of Queen Elizabeth II, 1893]

1895 Queen Annie Bawden May 1895 CM259

[Queen Annie II, 1895]

May Day is a festival dating back to pre-Christian times. It’s related to the Celtic festival Beltane and the Germanic Walpurgis Nacht. Faunthorpe wanted to emphasise the Christian elements, and Ruskin had exalted ideas about feminine innocence and purity. But despite that this version of May Day still had its May Pole, and retained the flowers, garlands, branches and wooden staffs which still have their older pagan connotations. Here’s Queen Annie again in her throne room.

Queen Annie II 1895 CM258 Queen enthroned - Copy

They look like they’re starting to get the hang of it. Some former queens are present (see if you can spot Elizabeth II). They’re beginning to look a little like a female Masonic lodge.

Ruskin died in 1900 but the Festival no longer needed his blessing and seemed to grow in importance and complexity. If you remember I first dealt with the May Queen in Games for May. In that post I linked the Festival with the Chelsea Pageant just because I found the pictures together but the more I find out about the two events the more I think they belong together as part of the same current in the first decade of the 20th century. The Edwardians seemed to have a propensity almost amounting to mania for dressing up and engaging in theatrical rituals and performances, especially out of doors. In an age of technological innovation perhaps they were reliving the myths and legends of an older England. An England of their imagination.

Behind the stern walls of the College was a quadrangle with ivy-covered walls where the ceremonies could take place out of sight of the busy streets outside.

1899 Queen Agnes I and bodyguard CM259

[Queen Agnes I 1899]

The May Day festival took a whole day and required much preparation. The entire student body of about 150 got white dresses paid for by the college. There were services in the college chapel, a procession, an abdication ceremony, an election (although it became expedient to have the election before May Day so the new queen could be fitted for her dress) a masque, or some “revels”, and the crowning of the new Queen who would give out gifts of copies of works by Ruskin to selected students.

In 1906 there happened to be three queens in the College at the same time, the new Queen Florence, her predecessor Evelyn and the 1904 Queen Mildred.

1906 Queen Florence with Queen Mildred -left-and Queen Evelyn

Mildred in particular looks like she’s just come off the set of one of those 1970s Hammer films like the Vampire Lovers. Or (as I’ve said before) the cover of an album by a 70s English folk rock group, especially in the masque picture below.

They pulled out the stops on this one. Florence proceeded to her coronation with her maidens in tow.

1906 Queen Florence and maidens

And Mildred took the lead in a masque in which the students played flowers and trees and paid homage to her.

1906 masque featuring Queen Mildred and the cast of flowers and trees

In 1909, the year after the Chelsea Pageant there were more elaborate ceremonies. Here is Agnes II, with her chamberlains.

1909 Queen Agnes II & chamberlains

On the throne with the Dowager Queen Dorothy.

1909 Queen Agnes II & Dowager Queen Dorothy 1902 painting behind

Behind them is a painting of the 1902 ceremony. Check out the leopard skin.

There was even a special appearance by this lot:

1909 nuns

Not real nuns of course, just some of the Pageant performers from 1908 who just couldn’t resist coming back for an encore. It might have been their last chance to join the procession with the women in white.

1908 procession 02

And oddly, it seems to me that at that point they had peaked. The May Queen Festival continued of course, carries on to this day in fact, but in the second decade of the century the ceremonies gradually became less elaborate and the College slowly seemed to stop making quite such a big thing of May Day. Or it could be that young women were getting more serious about their profession and less serious about quixotic ritual. I heard someone on the radio recently saying that the Edwardians had a kind of innocence based on hope, the hope that the new century was going to bring progress and prosperity. By 1910 perhaps the zeitgeist was looking a little less hopeful than before and the revellers decided it was time to put the costumes back into the dressing up box.

Still, there were many more May Queens at Whitelands and when they gathered together for the ceremonies there was quite a bunch of them, now engaged in charitable works as well as Christianised neo-pagan rites. They even had a leader, the Mother Queen who was the oldest of this select group.

1912 Queen Ellen the mother queen

The first May Queen, Ellen I, now out of mourning, in her own robes, leading the procession again in 1912. She died in 1923, mourned by her fellow queens, but never forgotten.


That was quite a long post. Just as with the Chelsea Pageant I discovered a lot more material than I had imagined we had. Enough for another post next May Day if you can wait that long. I showed the pictures to a colleague and she said “it looks so pagan” – so it isn’t just me who thinks that.

The picture of Ruskin and Rossetti comes from the book the Victorian art world in photographs by Jeremy Maas. There is supposed to be a copy of it in William Rossetti’s memoirs but our copy had that page missing. There was an interesting picture of Maria Rossetti though which I intend to use in a future post.

Whitelands College moved to Putney in 1930 and has since moved again. It is now part of the University of Roehampton. The May Day Festival continues and they have May Kings now as well as May Queens. This year’s festival is on May 18th.

Postscript to the postscript

See comment below. Queen Thyra (1890) from Malcolm Cole’s book on the May Queen Festival,

1890 Queen Thyra

The mysterious Mrs Rush: more pictures of houses and rooms

Here is Lord Ranelagh’s house after his fall from grace and subsequent death. The owners of the Gardens used his name and his house as part of the entertainment. By 1805 nothing was left of house and Gardens but a few foundation stones, and a cellar or some kind of crypt.

Here is a house called Gough House a little way down the river. Mrs Rush and the time traveller can disembark here and make their way through the formal garden, even though it only existed in this form in the artist’s imagination. Mrs Rush tells the traveller to pay attention to open windows, glimpsed faces and distant statues.

Here is the interior as Mrs Rush pictured it. Her rooms were always tidy as though she was painting for an 18th century estate agent’s brochure, or imagining the afterlife. The door to the north front is open.

Here is the view from the north. The lush vegetation besieges the house. But the women inside seem unconcerned.

Here is the Duchess of Monmouth’s house where Smollett lived and wrote Humphrey Clinker. His study window is open, next to one of the bricked in windows.

But when they got inside there was no trace of Mr Smollett.

Here is Sir John Cope’s house which was later turned into a madhouse. There were several of those in Chelsea. One Turlington kept a house where a man could put away his wife or any other troublesome relative under the pretense of insanity. In 1763 a judgement at the King’s Bench went against him. One husband testified that he considered the house to be nothing more than a bridewell or house of correction. That year the Lords called for a bill to regulate such houses.

The woman on her way out of the house holds an oversize key. Mrs Rush has some questions. What happened to the tree on the left? Have the peacocks escaped? Mrs Rush and the traveller cannot stay to see what happens next.

Under the house says Mrs Rush is a subterranean passage. She is drawn to underground places.

They pass another garden with lush growth of flowers and plants.Mrs Rush regards Dr Mead as a friend to herself and her husband.

But in that house she dreamed of this room.

The plants seemed to press against the windows in a rather too insistent fashion.

In more open country the two women can stop and take refreshment at Pond House. Mrs Rush is welcome in many houses.

The Pond was subsequently filled in and built over. It is commemorated in a street name.

The tour is coming to a close. Here is the church where Mr Rush officiates at religious services. This may be where Mrs Rush  met Elizabeth Gulston, the woman who kept her pictures safe for many years.

If she wishes the traveller may sit inside for a while and prepare herself.

Here is the final room from Mr Faulkner’s book where Mrs Rush introduces the traveller to her guide home. Pay no attention to the goods for sale.

The traveller and her friends are re-united back in their own clothes in their own present, remembering their adventures.

Next week we might also be back in our own reality.

The Rush pictures were acquired by Chelsea Library in 1929 having been in the Gulston family for many years. The engraving is from a special edition of Mr Faulkner’s history of Chelsea. The photograph is from a private collection.

18th Century glamour girl: searching for Miss Chudleigh

The story so far: three actresses from the Chelsea Pageant of 1908 have traveled back to the 1740s to meet celebrity bigamist Elizabeth Chudleigh, Duchess of Kingston and / or Countess of Bristol at the Venetian Masquerade in Ranelagh Gardens. Now read on:

We caught a glimpse of Miss Chudleigh last week in the six thousand-strong crowd at the Royal Jubilee Venetian Masquerade which was held on April 26th 1749 (when she was still only married to one man, but was keeping it a secret so she could still have an income as one of the Queen’s Maids of Honour). Her scandalous costume was of Iphigenia, daughter of Agamemnon, ready for sacrifice. According to the story Iphigenia was lured by the promise of a marriage to Achilles to the place where the Greek fleet was to set sail to Troy to become an offering to Artemis, the goddess her father had offended. At the last minute she was spirited away by magic and replaced by an animal, a deer or a stag. Miss Chudleigh’s costume was said to have been so revealing that the high priest could already see her entrails. There were many artistic renditions of the costume.

Not one of the more flattering versions, here she is accompanied by a gesticulating carnival goer, and Mr Punch, himself no stranger to human sacrifice. Here is a more pleasing version:

She wouldn’t have been Duchess of Kingston at the time of course so this must be a much later picture. The problem for both artists is that she didn’t actually wear the revealing outfit at Ranelagh. She did wear some kind of controversial costume four days later at a private Subscription Masquerade at the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket, a far more exclusive occasion at which she made a favourable impression on the King but outraged some of the other guests.  No accurate description of what she was wearing that night exists, although there has been sufficient speculation for the dress to be famous after two centuries.

She would have been at Ranelagh though, perhaps in conventional dress, perhaps masked in a fanciful costume so our trio of actresses could encounter her in the throng, either outside by the Chinese Pavilion and canal:

Or watching one of the stranger performances in the Gardens:

It might be safer to look inside the Rotunda amongst the dancers, as in this Cruickshank print.

She might have been dressed more like this later portrait:

In any case with music, dancing and fireworks, it was a spectacular celebration.

Iphigenia also provided the inspiration for a song performed at Ranelagh:

The story of Iphigenia and Cymon comes from Boccaccio’s Decameron rather than Greek myth (hence the modern dress?)

Lord Leighton later rendered the subject more artistically:

The celebrations went on till a late hour. Maybe our actresses found Miss Chudleigh, maybe they didn’t but once the Masquerade is finished the Rotunda lies empty.

The fire in the former orchestra stalls is burning down.

It was said that at night with the light still burning the Rotunda looked like an enormous lantern.

The Misses Jourdain and Moberly reported that at the end of their strange experience at Versailles the world seemed to flatten out and drain of colour and sound when they were about to return to their own time. Perhaps our time travelers are now experiencing something similar. Attentive readers will already have realized that our three actresses have entered the world not only of Elizabeth Chudleigh but of a woman we already know the mysterious Marianne Rush. The empty interior is one of her pictures. Look at this detail from the night picture:

Two women walk off into the night. For one of our travelers the journey is not yet over. She is about to enter the mysterious world of Marianne Rush. See you next week.

Kate at the Pageant 3: An adventure at Ranelagh

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:

Kate at the Pageant 1908

Kate at the Pageant 2: Tudor dreams


Games for May: the Pageant and the Queen 1908

If the past really is another country and they really did do things differently there, photographs can sometimes show just how different it could be. In this collection of images you seem to have all the ingredients for a supernatural drama. A creepy giant figure, people in costume, with a teenage girl, ready for sacrifice right out of one of those stories about a folk tradition gone bad as in the Wicker Man….

A procession of enigmatic robed men…….

Some sinister nuns….


Women in classical costume ready for a fertility rite…..

A ceremony beside an ivy-covered wall. Isn’t that a maypole?

All the while an audience watches from the shadows, waiting for the conclusion of the ritual. As always in a supernatural story  in the style of M R James  there is a framing narrative in which the editor asserts that it’s all true. A library is just the place for uncovering secrets and just like in a story I discovered these pictures a few years ago at the bottom of a dusty box which had been sitting untouched for years in a basement room. Would I lie to you?

Some of the other pictures I found make things clearer.

You can figure out who the man in the right is supposed to be. And the woman in the centre is more concerned with having her photo taken than looking at the King.

The nuns look much less sinister in a group photo. And as for the women in white….

They are of course the court of Queen Agnes the May Queen of Whitelands College, a teacher training college which was founded in Chelsea in the 1840s. The art historian John Ruskin was instrumental in starting the tradition of an annual coronation for the May Queen. Queen Agnes was crowned in 1909. The ivy covered wall was in the courtyard of the College on the King’s Road.

And the rural setting of all the costumed performances was the grounds of the Royal Hospital. The event was the Chelsea Historical Pageant of 1908.Note the presence in this photo of some people in “modern” dress who break the spell. The historical fancy dress costumes actually take the people out of their own time into a special zone – an “any” time where it’s difficult to say exactly what the year is.

As if to prove this point, here’s a picture which could easily have been taken at almost any time in the last century.

So whatever strange activities they got up to in the past, perhaps it wasn’t so different then.

The photographs, discovered in one envelope were by Kate Pragnell about whom I know nothing except that it’s good she was there. She may have taken some of the official photographs of the events but these are the candid shots from behind the scenes.

By rights you should have had a Kensington post this week but there have been so many modern topics recently that I thought it would be a good idea to go further back in time and now that we’re in autumn take a look at some long gone summers. The kids in the last picture had the twentieth century in front of them. How far did they get?


Other posts about the Chelsea Historical Pageant:

Kate at the Pageant 1908

Kate at the Pageant 2: Tudor dreams

Kate at the Pageant 3: an adventure at Ranelagh

Whitelands College posts:

Rite of Spring: Mr Ruskin’s May Queen

The May Queens of Whitelands:return to the hidden kingdom



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