Edwardian Encounters: ‘A Fancy Dress Dinner Party’ by Charles Ricketts

'A Fancy Dress Dinner Party' by Charles Ricketts, c.1904

‘A Fancy Dress Dinner Party’ by Charles Ricketts, c.1904

A small canvas in the Tullie House Gallery, Carlisle, offers a fascinating insight into the social life of a small group of Edwardian artists. The painting, by the multi-talented Charles Ricketts, depicts seven guests assembled at 11-13 Lansdowne Road, Holland Park, the house of Sir Edmund and Lady Mary Davis, on the 10th December 1904.

The Australian-born Edmund Davis was a highly successful businessman, who made most of his money in various South African ventures; not least gold and diamond mining. In 1889 he moved to London and married the talented Mary Halford, who encouraged his interest in art, which the couple started collecting in the late 1890s. Their tastes ranged widely, incorporating Old Master paintings, eighteenth century sculpture and contemporary works by the likes of Rodin (it is said that Edmund ‘liked to exercise surrounded by Rodin statues’).[1] Amongst the contemporary artists they patronised were Ricketts himself, James Pryde, Frank Brangwyn and Charles Conder. The latter two both provided decorations for the Holland Park house, examples of which were published in The Studio magazine.[2]

Having stocked their house with some of the best work the Edwardian art world had to offer, it made sense that the Davises should host sumptuous parties, in which guests were encouraged to wear elaborate fancy dress. As Ann Galbally has written: ‘‘Fancy-dress parties, bal costumes and tableaux vivants were a major feature of upper-class and artistic Edwardian social life. Not content with being painted by Sargent, Lambert or Steer as though they had stepped out of the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries, society figures wanted to live out their historical fantasies in social gatherings’.[3]

Though rough in texture (more of a study, perhaps, than a finished work) Charles Ricketts’s 1904 painting nonetheless captures the spirit of a night out at the Davises. The figures have been identified (from left to right) as Lady Mary Davis, Sir Edmund Davis, Mrs Charles Conder (Stella Maris), Max Beerbohm, Mrs Amy Halford (Mary’s sister, and an important art collector in her own right), Charles Conder and Charles Ricketts.[4] Although the gallery states that the painting is ‘taken from life’, the presence of Ricketts within the frame suggests that a certain amount of imagination was also employed.

The costumes are a little more difficult to identify. Ricketts’s diary entry for that day notes: ‘In the evening to Davis in my exquisite disguise – pigs head […] Max Beerbohm wore a Cardinals costume […] no one was quite happy in costume excepting Mrs Conder who knew how ripping she looked’.[5] The exquisiteness of Ricketts’s dress was further detailed by his friends, the writer(s) Michael Field: ‘He is going [to the Davis party] as a pig with a trail-wreath of little pink roses, a white satin coat, gardenias plucked of their leaves’.[6] It was, by all accounts, a complicated outfit – though one which, to Rickett’s dismay, did not have the effect he desired. He was largely met, it seemed, by giggles and general miscomprehension. ‘Their suburban minds seemed shocked,’ he told Field, concluding that ‘It was a frost, I was a dead failure’.[7]

In light of this, it was intriguing that Ricketts decided to make a record of the evening. Although there is an element of self-mockery in the way he recounted the ‘failure’ of his costume, the circumstances are entirely in keeping with his character. It is more than likely that he took the fancy dress element of the party much more seriously than his fellow guests. Ricketts was an artist with a great eye for detail, and a genuine interest in costume history and design. Perhaps by painting by the scene he was hoping to make up for the disappointment of the night itself? If no one appreciated his pig’s head in person, he could at least ensure that they appreciated it in retrospect. On the other hand, it could be argued that Ricketts’s marginal position within the painting indicates his inability to make the requisite splash. This is in direct contrast to the three women depicted in the picture, whose ballooning dresses dominate the image. Amongst such company, the artist may be suggesting, what chance did a shy man in a pig’s head have? Ricketts’s pig is not the life and soul of the dinner party, but a strange, almost sinister, onlooker. This may reflect the way he saw himself in regards to the wider artistic community: something of an esoteric outsider, whose best efforts were often misunderstood.

This remains an interesting – and potentially very personal – little painting, which was probably never intended for public consumption. The work was part of the collection of the poet Gordon Bottomley, whom Ricketts first met in June 1904. Bottomley went on to become a major patron of the artist and his partner Charles Shannon, bequeathing several paintings to Tullie House in 1949. Of these, A Fancy Dress Dinner Party is the most surprising work; rare amongst Ricketts’s oeuvre in showing a contemporary scene. Typical, nonetheless, that Ricketts should have chosen a scene in which everyone was wearing historical dress; a scene in which what people are wearing seems far more important than their facial features.

Samuel Shaw, February 2014

[1] Ian Phimister, ‘Davis, Sir Edmund Gabriel (1861–1939)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/40711, accessed 5 Feb 2014]. See also S. Reynolds, ‘Sir Edmund Davis, collector and patron of the arts’, Apollo, 111 (1980), 459–63

[2] See T Martin Wood. “A room decorated by Conder.” The Studio 34 (1905) pp.201-10 and  ‘A Bedroom Decorated by Mr. Frank Brangwyn’, The Studio 19 (1900) pp.173-180

[3] Ann Galbally, Charles Conder: the Last Bohemian (Melbourne 2002) p.161

[5] The diaries of Charles Ricketts, 10th December 1904, British Library Collections.

[6] Michael Field, quoted in J G P Delaney, Charles Ricketts: A Biography (Oxford 1990) pp.191-2

[7] Ibid.

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