A gentleman who was standing beside Colonel Wyndham in the middle of the saloon had been looking at Miss Taverner in a dreamy, unconcerned way, but when he saw her take out her snuff-box a look of interest came into his eyes, and he wandered away from the Colonel, and came towards the sofa. He said very earnestly to Worth: "Please present me! Such a pretty box! What I should call a nice visiting-box, but not suitable for morning wear. I was tempted when they showed it to me, but it did not happen to be just what I was looking for."
Judith stared at him in a good deal of astonishment, but Lord Worth, betraying no hint of surprise, merely said: "Lord Petersham, Miss Taverner," and got up.
Thus, Lord Petersham, one of the more eccentric of the Regency dandies, made his entrance into the very first Regency novel ever written, Georgette Heyer’s Regency Buck, first published in 1935. His lordship’s penchant for inventing and popularizing articles of clothing is also noted in Heyer’s 1970 novel, Charity Girl. In that story, Viscount Desford’s younger brother, Simon, has taken to wearing Petersham trousers, much to his elder brother’s chagrin.
During the Regency, Lord Petersham was nearly as well-known about London as Beau Brummell, and, in fact, was one of Brummell’s friends. Petersham was also a particular friend of the Prince Regent and was part of the Carlton House set. Yet, though there have been several book-length biographies of Brummell, there are no substantive published memoirs or accounts of Petersham’s most interesting life, beyond the odd paragraph here and there in old journals and diaries. Today, most people know little, if anything about him.
In an effort to remedy that sad state of affairs, the first of a three-part biographical sketch of the eccentric, but charming Lord Petersham …
Charles Stanhope made his entrance into the world on 8 April 1780, in London, at Harrington House, the Stable Yard, St. James. He was the eldest son of the third Earl of Harrington, General Charles Stanhope and his wife, the former Jane Fleming, the eldest daughter of Sir John Fleming, 1st Baronet Fleming of Brompton Park. By his family connections, he was distantly related to both the Earl of Chesterfield and Earl Stanhope. By his Stanhope connections, he was also related to Lady Hester Stanhope. His paternal grandmother was the former Lady Caroline Fitzroy, the eldest daughter of the second Duke of Grafton. In addition to being a noted beauty, Lady Caroline was also famous for her eccentricities. Because baby Charles was the eldest son of the Earl of Harrington, he received the courtesy title Viscount Petersham upon his birth. He held that title for forty-nine years, right through the decade of the Regency, until the death of his father, the third Earl, in September of 1829.
The young Viscount Petersham was sent to Eton to matriculate and was there during one of the periodic rebellions staged by the boys against the brutal and tyrannical treatment they often received. Young Petersham, along with many of his fellow students, marched down to the Thames, where they all threw their school books into the river and then continued on to Salt Hill, where they all swore they would never return to school. Many of the boys did eventually return, but it appears Petersham kept his oath and was finished with Eton. Despite his father’s initial demands that he go back, he held his ground. In December of 1795, at the age of fifteen, the young Viscount purchased his commission as an ensign in the Coldstream Guards.
Petersham was promoted to the rank of Captain in the 10th (Prince of Wales’s Own) Light Dragoons, in November of 1799. This was the same regiment in which Beau Brummell served, but the Beau had become a Captain three years previously, in 1796. It is likely that Petersham became acquainted with both Beau Brummell and the Prince of Wales through his service with the 10th. Unlike Brummell, Petersham continued his military service, achieving the rank of Major in the Queen’s Rangers in February of 1803, and was gazetted Lieutenant Colonel of the 3rd West India Regiment on 25 June 1807. He was placed on half-pay in August of 1812, but did attain the rank of full Colonel in the army on 7 June 1814, the same day on which the Allied sovereigns and dignitaries arrived in London for the peace celebrations. It appears he sold out sometime after that, as there is no record of any further military service.
It is probable that Petersham voluntarily left his regiment to go on half-pay, since in March of 1812 he was named a Gentleman of the Bedchamber to King George III. He retained this position until the death of the king in January of 1820. He was then appointed to the same position under the new King, George IV. He held that position until November of 1829, when he resigned his post shortly after succeeding to the earldom of Harrington upon the death of his father. Petersham’s duties as a Gentleman of the Bedchamber to George III would have been light, and primarily ceremonial, as by 1812, the old king was deep in his madness and living in seclusion in Windsor Castle. There would have been plenty of time to enjoy the many delights available to a gentleman on the town in Regency London.
There may also have been a more familial reason for Petersham’s decision to end his military career. In 1812, after seven years as commander-in-chief in Ireland, the Earl of Harrington was leaving his post and returning to England. For the most part, Petersham got on well with his parents, and may have wanted to spend more time with them after such a long separation. Records show that prior to the beginning of the Regency, Petersham lodged at No. 36 Charles Street in Berkeley Square. But he had given up those rooms by 1812 and it appears that when he was in London during the Regency years, he was living in the family home, Harrington House. However, the Earl and his Countess were not always in residence, as they spent some time at their country estate, Elvaston Hall, in Derbyshire. In addition, the Earl of Harrington was sent on a number of diplomatic errands for the crown, to both Vienna and Berlin.
Viscount Petersham was a hale and hearty man, described by Captain Gronow as tall and handsome. There were many, including Lord Petersham himself, who thought he closely resembled the portraits of the French king, Henri IV, as a young man. Petersham grew a goatee similar to Henri’s to play up the likeness and enjoyed wearing clothing similar in style to that worn by the gallant King of France. The Viscount spoke with a slight lisp and cultivated an affected manner, but was said to have a most gracious smile. He was kindhearted and loyal, making him very popular with his wide circle of friends, which included both Beau Brummell and the Prince Regent.
As a young man, Petersham claimed to have cut out his own clothes, and once he was on the town, he devoted a great deal of his time and effort to his wardrobe. A great dandy, his taste in dress has been described as more distinctive than elegant, and he tended to excess in terms of fashion. Yet, he had nearly as great an influence with the Prince Regent as did Beau Brummell. Though Petersham patronized a number of tailors, he designed many of his garments himself. A great-coat of his design was called the "Petersham," and the Prince Regent ordered seven great-coats in that style, one for every day of the week. A hat which was made especially for the Viscount came to be called the "Harrington." A contemporary description of this hat says it had an "extreme yeoman-shaped crown with a square-cut brim" which was turned up with "marked eccentricity at one side." Perhaps his most flamboyant contribution to fashion was the Petersham trousers. These were a loose-fitting form of Cossack pant, with wide legs which could be gathered in at the ankle. There were several scurrilous verses circulated which lampooned this unique garment. Yet Petersham himself wore them quite often, and they were briefly popular with a select number of young sprigs of fashion.
Regardless of the sometimes outlandish garments which Petersham introduced to the Regency fashion scene, he retained his position as a noted dandy throughout the period. He, like Brummell, held the title of "Beau" in acknowledgement of his status as a leader of fashion. During the Regency, the designation of "Beau" most commonly referred to a man who gave particular, even excessive, attention to his wardrobe and appearance. The use of the term for an admirer or suitor of ladies was secondary. The Prince Regent sought Petersham’s advice on his wardrobe as often as he did Brummell’s. Lord William Pitt Lennox said that Byron‘s description of George IV, that he was "a finished gentleman from top to toe" applied equally to Lord Petersham. However, Princess Charlotte dealt Beau Petersham a cruel blow when she decreed that no member of her household should appear before her with what she called "frightful fringes." As a gentleman of the bedchamber to her grandfather, a close friend of her father, and therefore often in her presence, Petersham was obliged to shave his carefully cultivated goatee. It is said that the poet, Thomas Moore, wrote "a very feeling ode" on the occasion, entitled "My Whiskers" and dedicated it to the princess. Though it was privately circulated, it was never published and is now lost to history.
Petersham was not only interested in clothing, but also in the proper maintenance of his footwear. As a young man he had begun making his own boot blacking. He continued to experiment throughout his life to perfect his special recipe for blacking which he said would supersede every other. Sadly, there is no record of the ingredients which he used for his personal blacking formula. One wonders if he might have tried champagne, an ingredient which Brummell, in jest and frustration, had claimed to be part of his own special concoction for keeping his boots black and glossy when he was repeatedly importuned on the matter. Perhaps Beau Brummell and Beau Petersham shared a laugh over this sartorial jape.
Next week, Part Two of the biographical sketch of Lord Petersham, in which will be described his various curious collections.