Tag Archives: Tom Heslewood

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.

The Pageant in colour


Tickets - Copy


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.

Chelsea Historical Pageant poster 1732

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.

Cassivelaunus and the Druids 1st episode Caesar's Crossing

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.

May Day in Chelsea Fields circa 1500 3rd episode May day Revels the Miracle Cart

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?

The funeral of Anne of Cleeves 6th episode

Why opt for a procession of black clad figures? What posessed this number of women to dress as nuns for the occasion?

Chelsea Pageant 1908 Nuns - Copy

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.

Lady Sandys p37 - Copy

His conception of Lady Sandys,….. and a photograph of the design as it was executed

Episode 4 Lady Sandys (2)

The Princess Elizabeth:

Princess Elizabeth p45 - Copy

Along with a remnant of the dress material

Material - Copy (2)

I found it slightly harder to locate the woman who wore the dress but I think she’s in this picture:

Elizabethan group

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.

princess elizabeth

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:

Lady Jane Grey p46

Here are some of the characters in postcard form:

Catherine Parr interceding for Lord Dudley 5th episode with Princess Elizabeth and Lady Jane Gray

Catherine Parr intercedes for Lady Jane. And as a photograph:

Episode 4 Catherine Parr intercedes for Lady Jane Grey

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:

Lady Mary Howard p62 - Copy

Which was easier to find:

Episode 7 - Copy - Copy

Heslewood himself took part in the Pageant as an actor too, and secured a good role for himself:

Charles II 79 reverse

Opposite an equally well known partner:

Nell Gwynne p79

Here they are with Nell persuading the King to build the Royal Hospital

Charles II Nell Gwyn and the old soldiers 8th episode Nell persuades

In the actual grounds of the Hospital of course. I’ve used this picture before but it belongs here:

Chelsea Pageant 1908 Episode 8 Founding of Chelsea Hospital 1681

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.

Queen Elizabeth attends a masque 7th episode Faerie Queen


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.

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