This vision, dressed in something George Clinton might have rejected as being a little OTT, would be amazing enough if it had stepped out of a 1970s rock opera, or a disco fantasia about a mission to Mars manned exclusively by Village People.
But this photo was in fact taken at the dawn of the 20th century, its subject the extraordinary Henry Cyril Paget.
Paget was the 5th Marquess of Anglesey; the first of that line had lost a leg at Waterloo (you can imagine young Henry rolling his eyes while muttering “how careless”). Paget’s own stint as a career officer, you might not be surprised to learn, was short-lived.
In 1898, after marrying his cousin (an unconsummated union), Paget ascended to the marquessate and at the age of 23 he earned more each month than most labourers of the day earned in a lifetime.
But even the vast sums at his disposal were only a down payment on the fabulousness of which Paget dreamt. Rather than managing his estates or conserving their bounty for future generations, Paget longed more than anything to appear on the stage and began by converting a chapel on his Welsh estate into a theatre, christened “The Gaiety”.
He then went on the road throughout Britain and Europe with a troupe paid – handsomely – out of his own pocket, but the bling-heavy costumes represented by far the greatest outlay. Seeing Paget perform, Portmeirion creator Clough William-Ellis was reminded of “an Aubrey Beardsley illustration come to life”.
Considering Oscar Wilde’s catastrophic fall from grace just a few years previously, it took no little bravery for Paget to perform the playwright’s An Ideal Husband. But generally his tastes tended more towards pantomime, or frankly anything which afforded opportunities for dressing up. Despite the enormous budget, there was something a little low-rent, a whiff of Blackpool about the marquess’s theatrical vision.
Aspects of Paget’s life, particularly his conception of life as a multi-platform extravaganza with himself as the star, will be familiar to regular Strange Flowers readers. This lack of demarcation between performance and “real” life was also seen in Alastair, while the personal wealth which Paget invested in his stage career and bejewelled off-stage existence recall Regency actor Robert Coates. There is even something of Raymond Roussel in the mahogany-lined motor car the marquess had built for touring.
But in his combination of provocative aestheticism and unbridled narcissism it is his contemporary Marchesa Casati that the marquess most resembles. The marchesa prowled the streets with panthers on jewelled leashes, the marquess trailed perfume throughout London while carrying a poodle in pink ribbons. Like Casati, Paget had an insatiable compulsion to capture his own image (though rather than entrusting it to great artists he often photographed himself). Like her he fell into debt after burning through an almost unimaginable fortune in pursuit of aesthetic perfection. And both marquess and marchesa saw the fruits of that quest auctioned to the disgust and delight of an incredulous, vengeful public.
The sale of the Marquess’s effects in 1904 took more than two weeks, featuring such lots as a vivid purple silk dressing gown “lined with grey squirrel”, the world’s largest collection of walking sticks – even his beloved dogs. Commenting on Paget’s casual separates, a newspaper reported that they were “too startling and outlandish for use off the stage.”
After reaching a deal with his creditors, Paget went abroad, somewhat poorer but still living in a style to which many of us might wish to become accustomed. But his plans to return to the stage came to nothing; on this day in 1905, in Monte Carlo, he died of pneumonia, aged just 29.
For all his extravagance, Paget had never sought the company of like-minded aesthetes or cultivated avant-garde tastes, as Casati had done. This, combined with his early death and the family’s subsequent attempts to suppress his legend, ensure that over a century later he enjoys little of the cultish reverence paid to the marchesa. This video shows one attempt to capture Paget’s spirit, from a 2007 dance piece entitled Gloria Days by Welsh performer Marc Rees: