I missed Henry Cyril Paget‘s birthday a couple of days ago, but then – what do you get the man who had everything and lost it again, other than: everything all over again?
Paget, born in 1875, inherited fantastic riches as the 5th Marquess of Anglesey. Through profligacy on a Ludovican scale he managed to blow the lot in just six years, but instead of castles he squandered the estate on jewels and costumes for his one-man theatrical presentations. And unlike Ludwig he lived to see his creations reclaimed by the public: the 1904 auction of his personal effects came with a catalogue as thick as a phone book, listing thousands of items of singular inutility (if anyone knows what a radish stand is, I’m all ears). Paget was still placing orders for luxe trifles on his Monte Carlo deathbed.
His death in 1905 was followed by about a century of embarrassed silence, but more recently the marquess has been celebrated in dance, in music, and now in a forthcoming episode of Antiques Roadshow (on Sunday, UK readers) which will hopefully unearth some of the pieces snapped up in the original auction.
In the meantime, have a listen to this wonderful BBC Radio broadcast. Somehow not having images before you makes it all more alluring. Picture the marquess inviting the local farmers for a preview of his touring show in the castle chapel which he had turned into the “Theatre Gaiety”. Imagine him at the close of the 19th century, illumined through the novelty of electric lighting in a stage show – witnessed by Lord Berners in Dresden – which was every bit as innovative as those offered by his contemporary Loie Fuller. Conjure him, finally, speeding around sleepy North Welsh laneways with his valet, Lee and Scott style, his limousine’s exhaust scented with Parisian perfume.
Naturally it’s easier to admire all this high camp high living if you’re not a family member watching the daft queen burning through your inheritance (literally, in one case: strolling the grounds one day, Paget cast off a fur coat and threw it onto one of numerous braziers lit for his comfort). Spare a thought, too, for the workers on the marquess’s estate whose toil enabled all of this wanton peacockery. In fact everything about Paget was calculated to horrify the pious, plain-living locals. He was, as one obituary stated in terms unusually blunt for the time, “not as other men”. Actually there is little written evidence by which to determine the nature of his sexuality. But this was a man who could only bear the sight of his wife’s nude body when, like des Esseintes’ turtle, it was completely obscured by gems; if that doesn’t get you a berth on the spectrum I don’t know what will.
Anyway: enjoy, and I’ll be back next week when I drop in on yet another spendthrift aristo…