I simply had to snap my view from the sash chord in Bloomsbury Towers yesterday. It was for such conditions that the phrase ‘squalling showers’ was coined. I half expected my neighbour Miss Merrill to fly past the window in a gingham dress squealing ‘it’s a twister! it’s a twister!’ Perhaps the Heavens were weeping for the demise of Pat Butcher on Eastenders this week. I haven’t slept worrying about who Pat was going to leave her collection of dangly earrings to. They’ll take years to catalogue and clear probate. You’ll recall Pat was famous for her chandelier earrings and her way with eye make-up that made a Cherokee look subtle by comparison. She could also swing her raincoat like a matador’s cape when in a bait. Does Strictly Come Dancing beckon I wonder?
Perhaps the rain coming down was a consolation prize for being chained to my desk like a latter day Patty Hearst working up the marque chapters of my T&H book The Perfect Gentleman. Today I’ve been immersed in the history of 17th century St James’s Street hatter James Lock & Co and Jermyn Street perfumer J. Floris founded in 1730. There is a tantalising note in Floris’s potted history that Beau Brummell would bespeak perfume at No 89 Jermyn Street from Mr Floris.
But the Beau apparently shunned scent; choosing instead to bathe daily at the ‘New Hummum’ Turkish baths in Covent Garden where he took delivery of two Lock hats in 1808. Exploring and sometimes exploding myths about great men of fashion such as Brummell will I hope give The Perfect Gentleman some ‘bottom’ as they say up the London Library. I hope access to Floris’s records might prove me wrong.
Brummell is a character that fascinates all fashion historians. If there was a book I wish I’d have written, it is the definitive Brummell biography The Ultimate Dandy penned by Ian Kelly. I met Mr Kelly when I was curating the Gieves & Hawkes archive at No 1 Savile Row and he was incredibly supportive when I thought I’d found an unattributed caricature in the Gillray cartoon of the Prince Regent’s wedding. Well, it looks like I will have to call on Ian’s expertise again having bought a miniature in Cecil Court that I think might – just might – be the Beau.
Interesting that the man who arguably had the greatest influence on British bespoke men’s tailoring in the last millennium never sat for a full-length portrait. There are miniatures and etchings attributed to him that look like Jimmy Nail, Julian Fellowes and Peter York. None of them has the ring of truth. We know Brummell broke his nose in his teens falling from his horse; a detail that would support the theory that my watercolour might be the Beau.
Brummell’s definition of exquisite taste is still valid today. The language of his clothing was not foreign to his fellow man but he spoke it more eloquently and elegantly than his peers. It was he who elevated the tying of a cravat to a private, cabbalistic art that only the initiated understood. He initiated the cult of bespoke tailoring as a private pleasure not immediately obvious to the uninitiated. What I cannot understand is Brummell’s lapse in his customary good taste and impeccable manners when he publicly humiliated his sponsor the Prince Regent.
When the Regent snubbed Brummell at a ball, the former favourite was reported as saying in a stage whisper to Lord Alvanley, ‘who’s your fat friend?’ As my friend Patricia pointed out, it wasn’t out of character for Brummell to insult his sartorial inferiors. In that respect he was something of a school bully. But comments that might have passed muster in the bow window at White’s Club on St James’s Street in private do not compare to an ill-judged if accurate remark at a masquerade he was co-hosting in the Argyll Rooms. it was a gross display of appalling manners that effectively saw him cast down as his credit rested solely on Brummell’s royal patronage.
Brummell is not the first and he won’t be the last to become feverish in the heat of royal favour. Perhaps the Beau believed his own publicity as so many do and it was this that clouded his judgement. I would surmise that Brummell was already all but defeated by his gambling debts, was aware that his shelf life as a royal favourite was coming to an end and he thus committed social suicide knowing full well the game was up. His instincts must have been dulled by debt, alcohol or hubris to make the Beau insult the only instrument of his salvation.
It is truly gratifying that London and its ghosts such as Brummell still have so many secrets to divulge. While walking through Trafalgar Square this week I was momentarily enchanted by the light and happened to glance up at the Corinthian portico of St Martin-in-the-Field. Now I’ve lived in London for 20 years and have never noticed that there’s a vast royal crest carved onto the facade of the church.
I had no idea that St Martin was a Royal parish church or that it was the parish church of the Admiralty. There’s been a church on the site since the 13th century but the present edifice with its magnificent Corinthian columned portico was built in 1726 by James Gibbs. London is I find incredibly rewarding if you are prepared to pay attention. There’s a lesson in there for all of us. Until next time…