The English Regency began in 1811 when George III's heir, George, Prince of Wales (aptly nicknamed 'Prinny'), took the presumptive sovereign reigns as Prince Regent. While the 'much-enlightened' Prince let King George sink privately into the perennial 'madness' of porphyria, Prinny as proxy took the helm of a rapidly expanding empire. With England, at its center, the country was still largely an agrarian nation with its social strata clearly defined by hierarchy. Though still at war with Napoleon, England remained yet untouched by 'Boney' and his mighty military machine, while leaving any sense of the outside world, beyond France, in the jurisdiction of the sole 'mass medium', the English Press. Transport was slow and largely dependent on the stage coach and mail coach, and here, Richard Rush, the American Minister to the Court of St. James's accounts for his views of just such a 'picture', on his way from Portsmouth to London:
"At noon, I set out for London. We were soon out of Portsmouth, and went as far as Godalming that day, a distance of 38 miles, over roads like a floor.
I was surprised at the few houses along or near the road side. I had been full of the idea of the populousness of England ... We rarely met wagons, carriages, or vehicles of any sort, except stage coaches. We did not see a single person on horseback. The stage coaches illustrated what is said of the excellence of that mode of travelling in England. These, as they came swiftly down the hills, or were met in full trot upon the plains, the horses fine, the harness bright, and inside and out filled with passengers, not only men but women, all well dressed, crowding the tops, had a bold and picturesque appearance. The few peasants whom we saw, were fully and warmly clad. They wore breeches and stockings, a heavy shoe, which lacing over the ankle, made the foot look clumsy; a linen frock over the coat, worked with plaits [braids], and stout leather gloves, which they kept on while working."
Rush then details the changing landscape just before reaching London:
"All within our view grew more and more instinct with life; until at length, evening coming on, at first villages, then rows of buildings, and people, and twinkling lights, and all kinds of sound, gave token that the metropolis was close by. We entered it by Hyde Park Corner, passing through Piccadilly and Bond Street, beholding the moving crowds which now the town lights revealed."
Regency London was large and handsome and Charles Lamb best describes it:
"The lighted shops of the Strand and Fleet Street, the innumerable trades, tradesmen and customers, coaches, waggons, playhouses, all the bustle and wickedness about Covent Garden, the very women of the town, the Watchmen, drunken scenes, rattles, -- life awake, if you awake, at all hours of the night, the impossibility of being dull in Fleet Street, the crowds, the very dirt & mud, the Sun shining upon houses and pavements, the print shops, the old book stalls, parsons cheapening books, coffee houses, steams of soups from kitchens, the pantomime, London itself a pantomime and a masquerade ..."
And if in Regency London, who better to experience its pleasures than with the Regent himself. The Morning Chronicle gives this report of the Regent's entrance at a garden supper for two-hundred guests of the nobility and gentry:
"His Royal Highness the Prince Regent entered the State Apartments about a quarter past nine o' clock, dressed in a scarlet coat, most richly and elegantly ornamented in a very novel style with gold lace, with a brilliant star of the Order of the Garter ... The conservatory presented the fine effect of a loft aisle in an ancient cathedral ... The grand table extended the whole length of the conservatory, and across Carlton House to the length of 200 feet ... Along the centre of the table, about six inches to above the surface, a canal of pure water continued flowing from a silver fountain, beautifully constructed at the head of the table. Its faintly waving artificial banks were covered with green moss and aquatic flowers, gold and silver fish, gudgeons, etc., were seen to swim and sport through the bubbling current, which produced a pleasing murmur when it fell, and formed a cascade at the outlet. At the head of the table, above the fountain, sat His Royal Highness the Prince Regent, on a throne of crimson velvet, trimmed with gold."
The cost for this frilly fete of finery at Carlton House came to over one-hundred-thousand pounds. In an effort to recoup the expense to the Empire the apartments, housing the party, were opened to the public for the price of a ticket. On the final day of reviewing just how very properly the beau monde could waste money, there was such a rush at it that some "delicate and helpless females who were present ... were thrown down, and ... [were] literally trod upon by those behind, without the possibility of being extricated".
In fact Carlton House was London's party-central. Anybody who was anyone tried to get an invitation to its most memorable events and royal fetes. Here Lady Elizabeth Feilding describes, in hyperbolical terms, one of these glittering occasions to a correspondent:
"I am afraid all my powers of description would fail to give you an idea of the oriental air of everything in that Mahomet's Paradise, Carlton House. I do not know whether we looked like Houris, but I for one was certainly in 77th heaven ...
Imagine yourself ascending a flight of steps into an immense saloon lighted up to the ceiling with a profusion of candles and a display of gold plate on either hand that dazzled the eye while a sonorous band of turbaned slaves played 'God Save the King'.
The sight and sound were both animating, the kettle-drums and cymbals, the glitter of spangles and finery, of dress and furniture that burst upon you was quite eblouissant.
Then you turned to the right through a suite of rooms, some hung with scarlet and gold, others with blue and gold, and some decorated with portraits of all our great commanders. At last you arrived at the ballroom, where sat the Queen at the upper end, with the Princess de Conde on her right hand, and the Russian Ambassadress (Comtess de Lieven) on her left. This last was a most singular figure; she was in black velvet up to her chin, with a huge ruff like Queen Elizabeth, or rather Mary Queen of Scots, for she is very handsome. She had no ornaments whatever but a long chain of very large diamonds, and a picture that hung on her back. Her head was dressed quite flat, and she looked like something walked out of its frame in an old picture gallery ..."
And gastronomy was no less impolitic in the Regency than its stampedes over royal post-party exhibits or Lady Elizabeth Feilding's '77th heaven'. In June 1814 this arrangement of hedonistic delights was laid before the visiting Allied Sovereigns:
"The Dinner was as sumptuous as expense or skill could make it, and was served entirely on plate ... Samuel Turner, Esq., one of the Directors of the Bank of England, very handsomely presented a fine Turtle for the occasion, which was the first imported in the season, and arrived in time to be served ... A large Baron of Beef, with the Royal Standard, was placed upon a stage at the upper end of the Hall, in view of the Royal Table, attended by the Serjeant Carvers and one of the principal Cooks, in proper Costume."
Poor 'Turtle'! After 'fifteen toasts' and a 'flourish of trumpets', it was clear that what life was left in the poor creature on arrival, was vanquished in voracity by noblemen and gentry with dreadfully epicurean tastes. But the Prince wasn't done for the Season and he then proceeded to host a sumptuous ball for the Duke of Wellington, as Lady Harriot Frampton details quite minutely:
"The supper laid out in one room for the Queen was very handsome, as the ornaments were quite beautiful. There were fifty covers, and the plateau down the middle of the table was covered with exquisite groups in silver gilt. The centre group was above three feet high, and each one of the figures was so beautifully executed that they might have been ornaments in a drawing-room, and everything else, even the salt-cellars, was in the most excellent taste. All was in gold or silver gilt, which made the silver plate, set out in the deep-recessed windows, look cold and poor, although in reality it was very massive and handsome.
The plates only were of china and I recognised them as a set of the finest Sevres porcelain which Lady Auckland had once shown me at Beckenham, as having been a present from Louis XVI to the late Lord Auckland, when he was Ambassador at Paris, and I regretted that they should have been obliged to part with them. Each plate had a large bird painted in the centre of it.
All the rooms were studded with Ws in honour of the Duke of Wellington, who, however, seemed to do all he could to avoid notice."
Photo courtesy Siren-Com
One can only think the Duke a very wise man for all of his Ws at such an occasion! And such was the novelty of London, and the extravagant influence of the Prince Regent (whom Shelley appositely describes as the 'overgrown bantling of Regency'), that excess in the metropolis took on the veritable hallmarks of fashion. Though the darker side of a dingier London played nefarious host to the 'Lunar races', as Robert Southey put it, the Prince and his People did true justice to the everything that shone 'Solar'.
In my next review of this extraordinary era, we go onwards and upwards to shining hedonistic heights with its celebrity extraordinaire, the Prince Regent, and to his most darling of places, Brighton. There contemporary witnesses will paint a picture of the Prince and his period that waxes nothing shy of uncommon, exotic and, at the very least, everything that was very 'elegant and lively'.
Sources: Richardson J. The Regency (Collins, 1973)
Regency images courtesy Wikimedia
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