Peer to peer

Not long ago we spotted Lord Berners at the Ballets Russes with Ganna Walska (a concept from which I’ve barely recovered, but let’s not make this all about me). In an account I’ve only recently come across, a youthful Berners beheld another rare bird displaying its exotic plumage around 25 years earlier.

As Berners was approaching manhood and the 19th century its end, his family sent him to Dresden to learn German. There the precociously cultured peer frequented the opera and ostentatiously read Nietzsche in public. Berners’ memoirs of this time were lost for many years, and eventually published posthumously in 2008 under the title Dresden.

One passage has Berners witnessing a theatrical presentation by his extraordinary countryman the Marquess of Anglesey, Henry Cyril Paget, the vision in Wilhelmine whiskers flashing his lallies above. The “dancing marquess”, as he was known, died on this day in 1905, aged just 29. But in Berners’ telling, he doesn’t actually dance, he does nothing, in fact, but exhibit the jewels which he bought on Walska-esque shopping sprees. The scenario that Berners describes is a tableau vivant of such camp wonder, such transcendental glamour, that the glint from those gemstones seems to fly through time and space to lodge themselves irremovably in the mind’s eye.

It would be tempting to read this performance as a kind of passing-of-the-torch from one intensely eccentric aristocrat to another. But as Berners’ bewilderment indicates, his eccentricity was of a much less performative nature:

Some excitement was caused in the British colony by the arrival in Dresden of an eccentric peer, the Marquis of Anglesey, and by the announcement that he was going to appear at one of the principal music halls. Since marquises in those days still enjoyed a certain veneration, particularly among the British colony in Dresden, this was considered very eccentric indeed. Mrs. Wray complained that Lord Anglesey was “letting down” the peerage, and Mrs. Mansfield was of the opinion that no Englishman ought to go and see him disgrace himself. It would have been bad enough if he had been going to take the part of Seigfried in the opera house- but to appear at a music hall!

I had heard that Lord Anglesey had previously appeared in other Continental music halls, and that all he did was to show himself on the stage attired in the family jewels. It didn’t sound to me a very exciting performance; however, in spite of Mrs. Mansfield’s injunction, I was determined to go and see it.

If not exactly exciting it was decidedly a strange “turn.” It came between that of a lady with performing pigeons and a company of acrobats. The theatre was darkened. There was a roll on the drums and the curtain went up on Lord Anglesey clad in a white silk tunic, a huge diamond tiara on his head, glittering with necklaces, brooches, bracelets and rings. He stood there for a few minutes motionless, without any mannequin gestures of display. Then the curtain went down again period. No applause followed, only an animated buzz of conversation. The German audience seemed a little disconcerted by the manifestation of British eccentricity. I may say that German audiences even in the music halls were extremely disciplined and well-behaved. Once at the Dresden opera a new tenor, appearing for the first time in the role of Lohengrin, missed his footing on stepping out of the swan-boat and fell headlong on the stage. His shield and helmet were restored to him by members of the chorus, and the performance was resumed in perfect silence. There was not the sound of the faintest chuckle. Lord Anglesey, I thought, had got off lightly. Imagine the reception of such a display by an English music-hall audience. The press treated the matter with similar restraint. The notices merely commented on the magnificence of the jewels. German propaganda had not yet taken up the subject of British decadence. In later years, poor Lord Anglesey would no doubt have been accused by his compatriots of being in the pay of the German government and of being employed by them to bring the British nation into disrepute.

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12 comments

  1. Tsk, tsk “letting down” the peerage. But in what style!

  2. butterscotchclouds

    But is it the tastiest cheese? (Not that the tasty factor would excuse the name; I’m just laughing to myself at 8am)

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