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Thursday 14 February 2013

A ball at Almack's in 1815

A ball at Almack's in 1815 (annotated) from Celebrities of London and Paris by Captain Gronow (1865)
A ball at Almack's in 1815 (annotated)
from Celebrities of London and Paris by Captain Gronow (1865)
My post on Almack’s Assembly Rooms was originally illustrated by the above picture, supposedly depicting a ball at Almack’s in 1815. It comes from Gronow’s reminiscences and is accompanied by a detailed description:
The personages delineated in the frontispiece are well worthy of notice, both from the position they held in the fashionable world, and from their being represented with great truth and accuracy. On the left, the man with the red face, laughing at Brummell, is Charles, Marquis of Queensberry; the great George himself, the admirable Crichton of the age, comes next, in a dégagé attitude, with his fingers in his waistcoat pocket. His neck-cloth is inimitable, and must have cost him much time and trouble to arrive at such perfection. He is talking earnestly to the charming Duchess of Rutland, who was a Howard, and mother to the present Duke.
The tall man, in a black coat, who is preparing to waltz with Princess Esterhazy, so long ambassadress of Austria in London, is the Comte de St Antonio, afterwards Duke of Canizzaro. He resided many years in England, was a very handsome man, and a great lady-killer, and married an English heiress, Miss Johnson. The stout gentleman waltzing with the Russian ambassadress, Countess, afterwards Princess Lieven, is Baron Neumann, at that time secretary to the Austrian embassy. He was afterwards minister at Florence, and married a daughter of the Duke of Beaufort’s.
We next behold, in a wonderful light green coat, black tights, and a crushed hat, the late Sir George Warrender, the famous epicure, whose name was pronounced by Sir Joseph Copley to be really Sir Gorge Provender. The worthy Baronet is talking to the handsome Comte de St Aldegonde, afterwards a general, and at this period aide-de-camp to Louis Philippe, then Duke of Orleans.

The original sketch was given to Brummell by the artist who executed it; and it was highly prized by the king of the dandies. It was purchased at the sale of his effects in Chapel Street by the person who gave it to me.
Top left: Ball dress (Jun 1815) Top right: Evening dress (Feb 1815) from Ackermann's Repository Bottom left: Evening dress (Apr 1829) Bottom right: Ball dress (Apr 1829) from La Belle Assemblée
Top left: Ball dress (Jun 1815)
Top right: Evening dress (Feb 1815)
from Ackermann's Repository
Bottom left: Evening dress (Apr 1829)
Bottom right: Ball dress (Apr 1829)
from La Belle Assemblée
But did this ball really take place in 1815?

The problem with this picture is that it is dated 1815 and yet the ball dresses clearly belong to a later period. Having examined fashion prints from Ackermann’s Repository and La Belle Assemblée, I think that the gowns depicted belong to the late 1820s. (Compare the dresses from 1829 with those in the picture.)

And it is not only the ladies’ fashions that are wrong. The correct attire for gentlemen at Almack’s at this time was knee breeches, white cravat and chapeau bras. In the picture, the gentlemen are wearing pantaloons or trousers and the hats held by Sir George Warrender and the Comte de St Aldegonde look more like the collapsible top hats that became popular in the 1820s than the correctly formal chapeau bras.

So was the ball held in, say, 1829 rather than 1815? Well no, it cannot have been. The artist unmistakably identifies Beau Brummell in black on the left-hand side of the picture. Brummell left England for France in May 1816 to escape his debts and so if Brummell was at the ball, it must have been before May 1816 at the very latest.

A possible explanation

My theory is that part or possibly the entire sketch was done from memory and that the artist got some of the details wrong. In the days before cameras, there was no quick way to record a scene and I think we underestimate how often artists must have worked from memory. In this picture, various individuals were carefully drawn and identified; one can only assume that the fashions were of lesser importance to the artist.

Logically, it seems probable that the picture was drawn many years after the event, most likely at the time when the fashions represented were prevalent. The only problem with this notion is that Gronow claimed that he was given the sketch by someone who had bought it at the sale of Brummell’s possessions at his old home in Chapel Street which took place on 22 May 1816.

However, I can more readily believe that the sketch got into Gronow’s hands by a different route than that the artist was able to predict fashions some 14 years into the future!

The first quadrille at Almack's c1815 from The Reminiscences and Recollections of Captain Gronow (1889)
The first quadrille at Almack's c1815
from The Reminiscences and Recollections of Captain Gronow (1889)
showing the correct dress for Almack's in 1815

Headshot of Rachel Knowles author with sea in background(2021)
Rachel Knowles writes faith-based Regency romance and historical non-fiction. She has been sharing her research on this blog since 2011. Rachel lives in the beautiful Georgian seaside town of Weymouth, Dorset, on the south coast of England, with her husband, Andrew.
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Sources used include:
Ackermann, Rudolph, The Repository of Arts, Literature, Commerce,
Manufactures, Fashions and Politics
Bell, John, La Belle Assemblée (John Bell, 1806-1837, London)
Chancellor, E. Beresford, Memorials of St. James’s Street and Chronicles
of Almack’s

Gronow, Captain RH, Celebrities of London and Paris, being a third series
of reminiscences and anecdotes (1865)
Gronow, Captain, The Reminiscences and Recollections of Captain Gronow
(1850, 1862, 1889, 1892)


  1. Didn't the gentlemen have to wear knee breeches in 1815?

    1. You are, of course, absolutely right, Susana. I was so absorbed with the ladies' fashions being wrong that I had not mentioned that the gentlemen were also wearing the wrong clothing. I have inserted an extra paragraph that talks about this. Thanks for your input.
      Kind regards

  2. How absolutely fascinating Rachel! No question that the fashions are 1820s. Gronow is known for his errors, but this is a perfect little mystery. I wonder if we will ever know the truth of it.

    1. It is fascinating, isn't it, Lesley-Anne? I wonder if it was Gronow who was responsible for putting the date on the print or whether it was already labelled as being of a ball in 1815 when he acquired it? Clearly neither Gronow nor the artist were bothered about the fashions being wrong for the time!

  3. I just love your regular information slots! Keep them coming! I had a momentary panic when I read the title - thinking I'd made an error in clothing in my debut novel but thankfully not so! Lol!

    1. I'm so glad you like my posts, Molly. Is your novel set in 1815?

    2. The year before. I've just finished revisions and returned it to my editor so fingers crossed! Fascinating time and if you had money, some of the dresses were delightful!

  4. The year before. It was a fascinating time with some delightful dresses if you had money and all those 'rules' about behaviour and manners. I had lots of fun setting a novel then! Waiting to hear from editor following revisions. Fingers crossed! :-)

    1. I hope you get a positive response, Molly. Keep writing!

  5. I've just discovered this interesting post. Gronow does tend to get things wrong; he claimed that Neil Gow was leader of the orchestra at Almacks in 1814, when it was almost certainly Nathaniel Gow (and his name was Niel not Neil!). I've seen that error repeated several times in publications that quote from Gronow. That said, his memoires are a fascinating read.

    1. Thanks for this, Paul - how interesting. I agree Gronow's memoirs are fascinating, but it is not always easy to spot the errors, especially when nobody else has written about the same things!

  6. For what it's worth, I've done a bit more research into this picture. Gronow may imply it's Brummel's original sketch, but the 1889 second volume of Gronow's Reminiscences lists it as being by Joseph Grego... and he wasn't born until 1843! He was the illustrator for the later editions of Gronow's memoires, and worked from "contemporary sources".

    Max Beerbohm writing in 1896 believed it to be by Grego. I quote: "How very delightful Grego's drawings are! ... the most illuminative picture is certainly the Ball at Almack's. In the foreground stand two little figures, beneath whom, on the nether margin, are inscribed those splendid words, Beau Brummell in Deep Conversation with the Duchess of Rutland. The Duchess is a girl in pink, with a great wedge-comb erect among her ringlets, the Beau très dégagé, his head averse, his chin most supercilious upon his stock, one foot advanced, the gloved fingers of one hand caught lightly in his waistcoat; in fact, the very deuce of a pose.". That's a quote from "Dandies and Dandies": .

    Perhaps an 22 year old Grego adapted an original sketch purchased by his father at Brummel's sale, and provided it to Gronow for inclusion in the 1865 edition of Celebrities? It's a bit of a stretch, but maybe.

    1. Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. This is so interesting. You need to be a detective to work out the history of this picture! I wonder if, as it was drawn so much later, Grego asked his father what they were wearing in 1815 and his father got it wrong.

  7. I suspect lazy research by the artist! A bit like some Victorian illustrators - looks vaguely old, never mind if they didn't curl their hair into ringlets in 1430!
    Fascinating post

    1. Very likely! It is like a "spot the mistakes" puzzle, isn't it?!

  8. I saw the pic before reading and thought 'no, it's been labelled 10 years too early by mistake' - yes, plainly NOT 1815, and so often the case with Victorian illustrators that when in doubt they made things up [look at the idea of Vikings having horns on their helmets, a Victorian inventions...]
    It's been suggested to me, that as there's no modern book about the history of Almack's that I should write one, so now I need to start gathering source material; many thanks for the addition of E Bereseford Chancellor to my wishlist!. I'll be trawling through online newspapers as well from 1765 so wish me luck....

    1. Just goes to show you can't trust every date you find! Happy researching. :)

  9. Turns out Captain Rees Howell Gronow is an ancestor. My 3x Great-Grandfather Victorian artist Arthur Boyd Houghton married Susan Gronow. Her father's older brother was Captain Gronow. I've been reading his Reminiscences. He had ink in his veins. And his anecdotes are very good. Plus his first-hand account of the Battle of Waterloo is compelling!

    1. What a splendid connection! I wish I had anyone half so interesting in my family tree. :(

  10. The first quadrille at Almack's is from a set of pictures by a French artist illustrating French social life and dances. = Look up Le Bon Ton

  11. These fashions are definitely 1820s. There is of course a tradition of some illustrators deliberately using contemporary fashions for depicting events set in the recent past. Some of Dickens' posthumous illustrators have characters dressed in 1880s and 1890s styles. Also, there is some debate as to whether Phiz was using contemporary 1850s styles of dress for novels Dickens wrote in the 1850s but set in the 1820s. A sort of compromise style sometimes emerges suggesting the period of around 1840 . And, of course, this fairly relaxed attitude continues to effect costume dramas or period dramas made today and set in the 1960s, where ordinary characters often wear clothes from around a decade or so later or only available to high fashion circles

  12. I have what I think is an early version of this picture, slightly different in background detsil and colouring. It is signed , not with the name Grego. I may be able to provide a copy of the signature and the picture