Amusements of London: The Masked Assembly

Amusements of Old London

William B. Boulton, 1901

“… an attempt to survey the amusements of Londoners during a period which began… with the Restoration of King Charles the Second and ended with the accession of Her Majesty Queen Victoria.”

The Ridotto in Venice, Pietro Longhi, 1750's

The Ridotto in Venice, Pietro Longhi, 1750’s

The wearing of masks to disguise one’s identity was nothing new when the “quasi heathenish fêtes” of the medieval Venetians spread to 17th century England. After all, inquisitors, executioners, and highwaymen wore them as they completed their odious business. Pagan rites such as Bacchanalia and Saturnalia and the fêtes des innocents or fêtes de fous were masked revels in which participants could, along with their attire, shed their normal scruples and give way to their impulses. While there are accounts of masked events in Henry VIII’s court as well as the some of the Stuarts’, the “true masquerade,” where all guests were dressed in costume, was a long time coming to England from the Continent, probably because of its foreign origin in a Papist country.

It was only at the beginning of the 18th century that moralizing on the subject of masquerades began to appear in publications such as The Tatler and The Spectator.

It is worthy of note that the masked assembly was never an institution that had any great vogue among the common people, either in this country, or elsewhere. The wearing of masks or of disguises in private life was from very early times the exclusive privilege of the great or of those who imitated them.

Constables or police who raided some of these events discovered prominent men and women among the masked revelers and eventually released them.

The High Constable of Westminster descended upon a masquerade at midnight and made a great haul, which he duly displayed before Mr. Fielding. That eminent magistrate sat up all night to hear the charge, “but several of them being found to be persons of distinction, the justice, not thinking it proper to expose them, after a severe reprimand, dismissed them all.

“The women either come by themselves,” says Addison, describing the amenities of the masquerade of 1711, “or are introduced by friends, who are obliged to quit them upon their first entrance to the conversation of anybody that addresses himself to them.” This by the way was one of the rules of the true masquerade, which was its chief attraction for the frisky maid or matron of those days. Introductions were unknown, and absolute incognito was possible for all who wished to preserve it. The mask and domino were inviolable, except indeed to the police, and any infringement of that rule by a masker led to the inevitable chastisement of the offender by the other men in the room, of which there are numerous fatal results recorded. “But,” continues Mr. Addison, “there are several rooms where the parties may retire and show their faces by consent.”

The subject of masquerades evoked the growing censure of the press for the next half century, but “the masquerade absolutely throve on opposition.” The Bishop of London’s scathing sermons had no effect, nor did the satirical prints and prose that was disseminated throughout the city.

There were strange financial proposals too from amateur chancellors of the exchequer, who proposed to levy taxes upon all tickets for those ungodly diversions and to devote the proceeds to the Foundling Hospital, an institution which they declared was populated by the amours which were kindled by the opportunities of the masquerade. Grave statisticians drew attention to what they contended was an appalling fact, that the vogue of the masquerade quadrupled the normal number of divorces, and pious God-fearing people, whose nerves were sorely shaken by the two smart shocks of earthquake which startled London towards the middle of the century, pointed to the judgment of heaven which these unholy revels were calling upon the town.

It was precisely during the period of this continued opposition, which stretched practically from the days of Queen Anne to those of George the Third, that the masquerade established itself as one of the chief amusements of the upper classes of society in London. Middle class England might still cherish its memories of the Puritans, but there were other views in high quarters, and a mere newspaper agitation was of little effect in a day when four-fifths of the popular could not read. The diversions of an aristocracy, too, were moderately safe from interference by legislation provided by a Parliament whose two houses were composed of the aristocracy and its nominees. The well-born and well-placed classes of Anne and the Georges, in short, with King George the Second at their head, enjoyed the fredaines of the masquerade, and determined to keep them in spite of the bishops and the moralists of the press. And they succeeded perfectly.

The appearance of “party organizers” such as “Beau Nash in Bath, Robert Arthur at White’s Club, William Brooks at Brooks’s, Almack at his Assembly Rooms in King Street, Crockford at the big gaming club in St. James’s Street” had considerable influence on the amusements of late Georgian aristocrats.

John James Heidegger

The son of a pastor from Zurich, Heidegger “wandered about Europe for a quarter of a century living by his wits and acquiring knowledge of men and cities.” He came to England at the age of fifty and enlisted in the Guards, “a regiment in which you might at that time find very well-born men among the rank and file.” Known as the “Swiss Count,” his face was considered one of the ugliest ever seen. It is said that Lord Chesterfield, in lieu of paying his bill, told his tailor, a Mr. Jolly, that “he would not pay him until he could produce an uglier man than himself.” Mr. Jolly showed up with Heidegger and promptly received his money. A measure of Heidegger’s social success is the fact that he was accepted as a member of the very exclusive White’s Club.

john_james_heidegger_by_john_faberHeidegger possessed extraordinary organizational and entrepreneurial skills. His first venture, which involved producing an opera at the Queen’s Theatre in Haymarket, brought him much financial success, and established him as a theatre consultant.

The great world took him up and caressed him; princes gave him amethyst snuff-boxes set in gold; if my lady wanted a rout arranged at her mansion, or if there was a musical entertainment or a dancing assembly to be arranged at a public room, Mr. Heidegger was called in and did the thing to perfection.

King George I loved him and made him manager of His Majesty’s Theatre in Haymarket, where he worked with Handel on producing an opera. And then he set his mind to improving masquerades (which delighted the king even more than opera).

Unfortunately, many in the theater community resented the popularity of masquerades, seeing it as competition for their own offerings. There were also plenty of rumors of gamesters, women of the street, and even highwaymen present at these affairs. But with the king’s support, Heidegger had no fear of the naysayers—the pamphleteers and moralizers and disgruntled theatre people. (Theresa Cornelys was not so fortunate.) “Heidegger boasted of making £5000 a  year by this business.” At one point, when the king signed a royal proclamation against masquerades, Heidegger called the next one a ridotto, and not only got away with it, but the king was one of the guests!

“Thou Heidegger the English taste has found

And rul’st the mob of quality with sound’

In Lent, if masquerades displease the town

Call ’em ridottos, and they will still go down.

Go on, Prince Phiz, to please the British nation

Call thy next masquerade a convocation.”

Heidegger’s legacy to the British people, according to the London Post, was the perfected masquerade. Even after his death in 1749, the masquerade continued to flourish in several new buildings around town.

Ranelagh

ranelagh_gardens_eighteenth_century_original

The Rotunda at Ranelagh, 142 feet in diameter, proved to be an attractive venue for masquerades. There was no stage for actors and thus it was not competition for theaters. After a very successful “Jubilee Masquerade in the Venetian manner,” on 1st May 1749 to celebrate the peace in that year, “it was determined to repeat it in the form of a subscription masquerade.” Horace Walpole writes:

When you entered you found the whole garden filled with masks and spread with tents, which remained all night very commodely. In one quarter was a maypole dressed with garlands, and people dancing round it to a tabor and pipe and rustic music, all masked, as were all the various bands of music, which were disposed in different parts of the garden, some like huntsmen with French horns, some like peasants, and a troupe of harlequins and scaramouches in the little open temple on the mount. On the canal was a sort of gondola adorned with flags and streamers, and filled with music rowing about. All round the outside of the amphitheatre were shops filled with Dresden China, Japan, &cc., and all the shopkeepers in mask. The amphitheatre was illuminated, and in the middle was a circular bower composed of all kinds of firs in tubs, from twenty to thirty feet high, under the orange trees, with small lamps in each orange, and below them all sorts of the finest auriculus in pots and festoons of natural flowers hanging from tree to tree. There were booths for tea and wine, gaming-tables, and dancing, and about two thousand persons. In short, it pleased me more than anything I ever saw.

The Inauguration of the Pantheon in Oxford Street (1772)

sophia-baddeleyIt was rumored that the managers were set against inviting women with less-than-stellar reputations, i.e. actresses and demimondaines. Sophia Baddeley was one such actress with high connections—she was Lord Melbourne’s mistress at the time—and a score or so of her supporters assembled at Pall Mall and escorted her chair to St. James’s Street, where they were joined by even more fine gentlemen from White’s. The procession continued all the way to the Pantheon, whereupon they took out their swords and frightened the porters who were ordered to deny her entrance. This allowed the triumphant Sophia to march into the “fine room under a long canopy made by the crossed swords of her gallant escort.” Eventually, the managers made their apologies to her, and two duchesses “came forward to express to Mrs. Baddeley the pleasure it gave their graces to welcome such an ornament to the assembly.”

Mrs. Cornelys of Carlisle House

was the second person to make a business of organizing amusements for the upper classes. Her story was featured in an earlier post on this blog. Click here to read more.

hogarth-masqueradesoperas

The Bad Taste of the Town (also known as Masquerades and Operas) is an early print by William Hogarth, published in February 1723/24. The small print mocks the contemporary fashion for foreign culture, including Palladian architecture, pantomimes based on the Italian commedia dell’arte, masquerades (masked balls), and Italian opera.

 

Amusements of Old London series

4 thoughts on “Amusements of London: The Masked Assembly

  1. Pingback: Amusements of London: The Masked Assembly | spiritofnlm

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