… the fête given at Carlton House on June 19, 1811,
being then the only experiment ever made
to give a supper to 2,000 of the nobility and gentry.
So was described Prinny’s famous Carlton House fête in The Mirror of Literature, in an issue of 1830. This Sunday marks the two-hundredth anniversary of that glitteringly magnificent royal event, by which the Prince of Wales was finally able to celebrate his new position as Regent of England. This week, that memorable night at Carlton House.
When the Prince of Wales took the oath by which he became Regent, on 6 February 1811, he desperately wanted to throw an enormous, grand party to celebrate his new power. The major impediment was that the reason why he was made Regent, his father’s lapse into mental illness, was not cause for celebration. So, publicly, the Prince Regent did his best to maintain a sober, circumspect demeanor while he fulfilled his responsibilities as head of state and bided his time. But he was already planning his extravagant celebration, apparently in consultation with his current mistress, Lady Hertford. Finally, they hit upon what they thought was a most unobjectionable occasion for their celebration, the King’s birthday. They also decided to invite the members of the French Royal Family who were then in exile in England, thus ensuring this was a grand and official state occasion.
Typically, the King’s birthday was marked by a special drawing-room at Court, but due to his illness, it was not possible this year. The King’s birthday was the 4th of June, and the fête was originally scheduled for that date. But it had to be postponed, more than once, partly due to the King’s failing health, but primarily as many of the decorations which the Prince Regent had ordered were not yet ready. The various delays caused a great deal of anxiety among many in the beau monde who were eager to attend. In fact, as one wag had it, the phrase "Fixed as fate" (fête) could never be used again. However, the delays worked to the benefit of those who were determined to be there, but had not received invitations. One diarist, Sir George Jackson, wrote that there were some " … who are resolved to have them if ‘by hook or by crook’ they can, even at the last moment, be obtained, are scheming and intriguing with a perseverance and earnestness that is really amusing, though somewhat surprising, considering the end they have in view." In the end, all that scheming paid off for some guests, who did manage to wrangle invitations. It was originally reported that, at Lady Hertford’s command, no one below the rank of a peer’s son or daughter was to be invited. But that dictum was eventually reversed and more than two thousand invitations were sent out, across a wide range of classes. There is no doubt that many in attendance at Carlton House that night were not of the ton, but had invitations just the same. Another diarist, Joseph Farington, recorded that Lady W ——— h, (probably Lady Wentworth) the wife of one of the Gentlemen of the Bedchamber, did not receive an invitation. He tells us that upon hearing her complain of the oversight, " … some wag commented that the invitations must have run out before they reached the letter ‘W.’ ‘That could not be,’ she replied, ‘for half the Ws [whores] in town were invited.’"
The Prince Regent, ostensibly to aid the many British artists and craftsmen who had been deprived of substantial commissions due to the lack of courtly pageantry during his father’s long illness, included on the invitations a request that each of his guests attend dressed only in articles of British craft and manufacture. That royal request certainly gave employment to many modistes, milliners, shoemakers and jewelers throughout London and other centers of fashion. But there is no doubt that the lion’s share of the "aid" to British artists and craftsmen came directly from the Prince himself, with his many commissions for the set-up and decoration of Carlton House for his grand fête. Tents had to be erected in the gardens, massive amounts of flowers and ornamental shrubs were required, not to mention the vast quantities of glass and porcelain dinner service, the excellent food and fine wines, and last, but not least, the army of servants and their elegant liveries, plus his own magnificent military uniform. But the most expensive of all was what came to be known as the Prince’s "Grand Service."
In fact, the Regent had begun building his Grand Service while still Prince of Wales, adding to the Marine Service which had belonged to his grandfather, Frederick, Prince of Wales. In 1802, he commissioned the first pieces of the service from the firm of Rundell, Bridge & Rundell, when the designer Digby Scott and silversmith Benjamin Smith, had begun directing the precious metal workshop. By 1807, Paul Storr, one of the greatest of all British silversmiths, took over, bringing a renewed focus on the grand Neo-Classical style, which appealed to the Prince, and still more pieces were ordered, some of silver, others of gold. But in 1811, as the Prince began planning his grand fête, the volume of orders increased. Not only were many large and significant new pieces fashioned, but the Prince had many of the older silver pieces sent back to the Rundell & Bridge workshops to be gilt, to achieve his desire for a "unity of grandeur" in the display he had planned for the fête. The final invoice from Rundell & Bridge was presented on 4 June 1811, and it totaled £61,340. 1s 2d. This was the largest invoice for the production of plate which the firm ever presented to a patron in its entire history. As Regent, and later as King, George VI continued to add to his Grand Service and it is still used at state banquets at Buckingham Palace even today. But it made its public debut at the Grand Fête at Carlton House on Wednesday evening, 19 June 1811.
In preparation for the fête, barriers were set up along the perimeters of the Carlton House property to prevent the intrusion of the uninvited. The lawns in the front of Carlton House were covered over with matting to protect the grass and create a temporary courtyard. A bandstand was set up under the great Corinthian portico designed by Henry Holland. Four immense open tents were pitched in the gardens, under which were set up an extensive buffet and tables and chairs to accommodate the 1,600 who would not have a place at the main table in the Conservatory. But these were not simple marquees. They were festooned with many garlands of fragrant flowers and all of the ropes which held them in place were gilded. The garden was illuminated by hundreds of colored lanterns and lamps hung up about the various promenades and walkways, all of which were decorated flower garlands, ornamental shrubs and floral painted trellises. Lavish as this was, the bulk of the preparation took place inside Carlton House, in the grand public rooms.
Just past the entrance, the octagon saloon at the foot of the grand staircase, was turned into a floral bower, with a grotto, lined with a plethora of potted shrubs and sweet-smelling flowers. Some of main state rooms, a number of which included ornate French furniture and French porcelain, of which the Prince was an avid collector, were given new draperies and fittings, others being embellished with gold silk cords and tassels. In all the rooms, chandeliers and candelabra were cleaned, polished and filled with the best beeswax candles. The Blue Velvet Salon received perhaps the most expensive single improvement, for it was there, among his other Dutch masters, that the Prince directed be hung his new painting by Rembrandt, the Shipbuilder and His Wife, for which he had paid 5,000 guineas only the previous week. The painting can be seen hanging on the far wall in this print of the Blue Velvet Salon. The ballroom was divided in half by a silken crimson cord in order to accommodate two lines of dancers. The floors were decorated with a series of beautiful and intricate arabesque devices in chalk, in the center of the largest were to be seen the entwined initials G. III. R., in honor of the King, whose birthday was to be celebrated that evening. The practice of chalking the floors of ballrooms was only in vogue from 1808 to about 1821, and was a feature of ballroom floors for very special events at only the highest echelons of society. These chalk designs were complex and time-consuming to create, but ephemeral, soon blurred by dancing feet. But the chalk also provided some safety to the dancers by coating the often slick soles of their shoes, thereby reducing slippage as they glided over the smooth wood floors of the ballroom. The chalk arabesques seen on the ballroom floor at Carlton House on the evening of the fête are forever lost, but were certainly as lavish and elegant as all the other decorations to be seen in the Prince Regent’s home on that extraordinary night.
However, the most sumptuous decoration was reserved for the new Gothic Conservatory which had only recently been completed. It was here that the main dining table would be placed, at two hundred feet, running nearly the full length of the Conservatory. This table would be set with covers for his 400 most important and high ranking guests. It was reported that no one below the rank of marquisate was to be seated at this table and one can only wonder if this was at the behest of Lady Hertford, whose own husband was a marquess. Much of the Grand Service was used to set this table, including epergnes, candelabra, tureens, salvers and salts. One of the dinner services used at this table was the great Sèvres dinner and dessert service which had been commissioned from the Sèvres factory by Louis XVI, in 1783. It was the most ambitious and expensive service ever made at the factory, and only half of the planned pieces were completed at the time of Louis’s execution. The service was confiscated by the Revolutionary Government and was eventually sold to the Prince Regent, through the London dealer Robert Fogg, in 1811, for £1,973. 4s. 8d. The Grand Fête was also the public debut in England of this exquisite set of porcelain. Most of the Grand Service which was not used on the main dining table was set up on a series of small side tables, behind the head of the table where the Prince Regent would be seated. These tables were draped with crimson cloth, the better to accent the gold of the pieces and thus setting the Regent against of backdrop of rich crimson and glittering gold as he hosted his celebratory dinner. A few of the very large pieces of the Grand Service were placed in the opulent Plate Closet, in which was also kept the legendary jewelled huma bird taken from the throne of the defeated Tipu Sultan and presented to George III. Also to be seen in the Plate Closet was a Spanish urn which had been taken from a ship of the Armada. Hundreds of small colored lamps had been placed at the cornice level and in the niches of the gothic arches all around the Conservatory to enhance and illuminate the elegant gothic tracery of the ceiling.
But perhaps the most amazing and unexpected decoration for the fête was that which meandered down the center of the main dining table in the Conservatory. Here was placed a shallow, serpentine marble canal, set about six inches above the surface of the table, its banks covered with green moss and various aquatic flowers. At the head of the table was placed a large silver fountain which was to steadily release water into the marble rivulet, which would run bubbling and murmuring along its length and then pour out as a cascade into a circular lake when it reached the other end of the table. This small lake was surrounded by a set of architectural ruins as well as small vases which contained burning perfumes. At several points along this small stream were placed ornate bridges made of cut-work paper of various architectural styles. Just before the arrival of the guests, real, live, small gold and silver fish were placed into this table-top river to swim and dart about in the flowing water as the meal progressed.
The invitations had specified that the arrival time at Carlton House that evening was to be nine o’clock, at which time the gates would open. But with all the guests apprehensive of arriving late, there was a line of carriages in front of Carlton House well before eight o’clock which reached up to the top of St. James’s Street, and by nine o’clock, just as the gates were opening, to the top of Bond Street. It had been a very hot day and it was still a warm night. There was much pushing and jostling among those in the crowd of onlookers to see the women in their fine gowns and jewels. But the gentlemen who attended this event were not to be ignored. Most men wore court dress, as this was a state occasion, and many military and naval officers had been invited, all of whom attended in their resplendent and colorful dress uniforms. As this swirling mass of glittering color flowed into the elegantly decorated rooms of Carlton House when the gates opened to admit them, they were accompanied by the music of the Horse Guards band, playing on the bandstand which had been set up for them under the Corinthian portico.
The Regent’s royal brothers and their wives, as well as some of the principal nobility and high-ranking military officers had arrived early. Generals Keppell and Turner, Colonels Bloomfield, Thomas and Tyrwhitt, along with Lords Moira, Dundas, Keith, Heathfield and Mount Edgecumbe made up the receiving line. Once inside the main hall, the guests passed through a double line of the yeoman of the guard in their dress livery, into the octagonal salon, which had been transformed into a floral bower. From there, they spread through the state rooms and spilled out into the garden at the back, where additional bands were playing in each of the tents. The Prince’s servants moved among them, the upper servants dressed in a dark blue livery trimmed with gold lace. Many of the King’s and the Queen’s servants had been pressed into service for the evening and they wore their usual state liveries. The additional, assistant staff did not wear livery, but rather black suits with white vests. There was also one man who circulated through the crowd wearing a full suit of medieval armour.
The Prince entered the state rooms at about a quarter past nine. He was wearing false side whiskers and a long curled wig, which, it is reported, had the effect of making him look older than his forty-eight years. Denied a military career by his father, upon becoming Regent, the Prince conferred upon himself the honor of the rank of field-marshal shortly before the fête. That night, over a sturdy corset, he wore a gaudy new field-marshal’s uniform of his own design, which broke every code of elegant dress which Beau Brummell had tried to impart to him. The tunic was scarlet velvet, heavily embroidered with gold, over which he wore the riband and gorget of the Order of the Garter, plus a diamond-encrusted star. He also wore a diamond-studded aigrette and a carried a gilt sabre at his side. Brummell was present that evening, but there are no records that he commented upon the Prince’s regalia, at least not publicly. Many thought the uniform overly ostentatious, not in very good taste and rather poorly made. A rumour circulated that with all his diamonds and heavy gold embroidery, the ensemble must have weighed close to two hundred pounds.
The French Royal Family arrived at about ten o’clock, and the Prince received them in a state reception room which had been hung with blue silk decorated with golden fleur-de-lys. The Regent welcomed the Comte de Lisle, as Louis XVIII styled himself while in Britain, and his younger brother, the Comte d’Artois, as well as their niece, the Duchesse d’Angoulême, and her husband. There were many who had attended that night in order to meet, or at least, to see the Duchess. She was the only surviving child of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. She was very shy and tended to avoid crowds, but the Prince and her family had prevailed upon her to attend the fête. Also in attendance was the Duc de Berri, the Duc de Bourbon, and the Prince de Condé. After conversing for a time with the exiled French king and his family, the Regent released His Majesty from all further royal ceremony and personally conducted him about Carlton House as a private citizen, showing him the many state apartments and the gardens.
Dancing began in the ballroom later in the evening, and for the first dance, Earl Percy led Lady F. Montague out onto the chalked floor. A few other dancers joined them, but it remained a warm night, and most people preferred the cooler, open air of the gardens to the heat of the ballroom. There were also knots of people around the French royals and the Regent as they moved through the crowds. The Prince circulated among his many guests, both indoors and out, cordially chatting informally or pausing to listen to the great soprano Catalani sing the part of Elfrida from Paisiello‘s popular opera of the same name. Shortly afterward the guests were treated to an extensive display of fireworks. At two o’clock supper was announced, and by half-past two all of the French and English royals were seated at the main table in the Conservatory where the tiny gold and silver fish had just been released into the miniature river which flowed down the center of the table.
The Regent sat at the head of the main table, in a mahogany chair with the Prince of Wales’s feathers carved into its back. On his right was seated the Duchess of Angoulême and on his left was the Duchess of York, who had already taken the shy French duchess under her wing. Further along the table were seated the other members of the French Royal family, the royal English dukes and their wives. Even further from the Prince was seated his current mistress, Lady Hertford, her husband and their son, Lord Yarmouth, as well as the other 400 most favored guests. The remaining 1,600 guests took their supper at the lavish buffet which had been set up under the flower-ornamented marquees in the garden. The sumptuous meal comprised hot soups, roasted meats and other hot dishes, but there were also selections of cold sliced meats, cheeses, fresh breads and fruits. The fruits included peaches, grapes, pineapples, strawberries and many other fruits and berries which were not in season at the time. Champagne was on ice in coolers placed between every three to four people, and many other excellent wines were available during the course of the meal. There was plenty of food, so there was no rushing or crowding, and guests took their time enjoying their supper. In fact, the meal went on for several hours, with the first of the guests drifting away shortly after four o’clock, but the majority of the guests remained until after dawn, strolling the gardens or slipping into the Conservatory to see the sights of the main table, though, sadly, by then the tiny fish were beginning to die in their table-top river. It was not until well after six o’clock in the morning that the last of the guests finally departed Carlton House.
So ended the Grand Carlton House Fête. But there were many notable absences from this momentous social event, and the event itself would have consequences which would last through all the years of the Regency. There was also the experience of the public who were allowed into Carlton House afterwards. Next week, who stayed away from the fête, the public’s behaviour, as well as the aftermath and ramifications which the fête had for the Prince Regent and Great Britain.