Today (December 3) in London History – The Picture Ball

The last Picture Ball was held on December 3, 1913. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

The thing about the past is you can see into the future. The future of the past, that is.

And it’s not just an educated guess – or a foreboding – about what might be coming. It’s an absolute certainty. And it makes you experience a past event differently from those who were there, people for whom that event was the prow of time. And given that that nautical metaphor has crept into this, I guess what follows is, you – we – can see the gigantic iceberg up ahead. They couldn’t.

And omg – oh my god – does that ever, sometimes, make history poignant.

This day in history, for example. December 3rd, 1913.

It’s the great Picture Ball. That’s what it was called. It was held in the Royal Albert Hall. It was very grand. In the words of a contemporary newspaper account, “Practically anyone who is anyone in Society will attend the Picture Ball – most of them representing figures from world-famous paintings.” And there’s just no question but it was a hugely enjoyable night on the tiles for the upper crust – it was a tremendously important event, important date in their social calendar. It was held to raise money for the Invalid Kitchens – Invalid Kitchens were an early version of Meals on Wheels. Or Food Banks if you want to bring the discussion right up to date. It was in aid of charity – a good cause – everybody could feel good about the wonderful time they were having. And indeed feel good about their impossibly expensive, look-at-me costumes. As the newspaper said, the Picture Ball was the London Haut monde social event where the participants came representing figures from world-famous paintings. Which is what you’d expect at a Picture Ball. 

An example or two. Miss Violet Asquith, the daughter of the Prime Minister, came as the Angel Gabriel in the famous painting by Fra Filippo Lippi. Or feast your eyes, as everybody did, on Lady Diana Manners, the daughter of the Duke of Rutland. The inspiration for her costume was Vermeer’s famous painting, The Pearl Necklace. And then there was Winston Churchill’s mother, the American Jenny Jerome, better known as Lady Randolph Churchill. She came as the Empress Theodora, pictured in the sixth-century Byzantine mosaic at Ravenna. 

Well, you get the idea. These notable events in the social history always leave me shaking my head and muttering F. Scott Fitzgerald’s line, “the rich are different.”

But for once, that’s not really the point here. The point is what’s just up ahead for these people and their world. And indeed everybody else’s world.

The Great War – World War I – is just eight months in the future. That cataclysmic, all changed, changed utterly historical event. 

The huge iceberg the ship was bearing down on. 

They didn’t know. You’re there. You do know. You want to tell them, warn them. You want to tell the Prime Minister’s daughter, Violet Asquith, “something terrible is going to happen, you must go home and warn your father, get him to bear hard left or hard right, alter course.”

But it’s like a dream. They’re right there. You’re there. But you can’t tell them. Or they can’t hear. 

And so we look on, knowing what they don’t know. Knowing that this is the last Picture Ball. Knowing that their utter assurance that there’ll be another picture ball next year, and that they’ll go on forever, is completely misplaced. Knowing that some of the young men they’re dancing with – some of their brothers, some of their friends – will be dead or mutilated in a matter of months. Or at the most a couple of years. 

Because it’s the ever-present, malevolent, hooded, black-gowned spectre with the glowing, sightless eyes that was always there in the room for the rest of the twentieth century and indeed right down to the present day, I’ve acknowledged as much in a couple of previous podcasts. Acknowledged it by advancing this or that horrific set of statistics. Body counts basically. Here’s one that I’ve held back on. It says the same thing but in a different way. I’ve held back on it because it’s not British, it’s French. But the French experience was applicable, more or less, to every nation that went through that meat grinder. The knowledge – the experience – was unbearable after the fact. Imagine if you’d known it beforehand. Imagine if it was 1913 in Paris and you knew that in less than five years’ time one in four Frenchmen between the ages of 18 and 27 would be dead. Their lives thrown into the maw of World War I and devoured.

One more piece of research that this one’s thrown up.

Six months after The Picture Ball there was another ball at the Royal Albert Hall. It took place on June 10th, 1914, less than seven weeks before the start of World War I.

It was called the Century of Peace Ball.

And ok, it was held to commemorate a century of peace between this country and the United States. But given the timing – and in the circumstances – that title would, in a matter of weeks, would have seemed like a kindly, laughing mask ripped off to reveal a Moloch come amongst them, a rough beast that had been slouching toward them for… well, it’s for historians to puzzle how long the Great War was in the making.

It’s serious, sober stuff, all of this because of course in every sense we’re the ones who are now riding immediately behind the prow of time. And we have about as much idea where the ship is going as the people at the Picture Ball had. 

It’s mordant humour, that Tweet of God, but I for one can’t get out of my mind his saying a few weeks ago, “World War III would be a great way for people to stop worrying about climate change.”

Pretty good fit with Eric Schlosser’s remark at the beginning of his Pulitzer Prize Finalist book Command and Control that an American W-53 thermonuclear warhead has a yield of nine megatons – about three times the explosive force of all the bombs dropped during the Second World War, including both atomic bombs.

That’s one warhead at the payload end – ghastly term – of one missile.

Schlosser title’s that chapter, Not Good.

There, that’s cheered you up. Roll on, December 4th, right. Or back to that happy happy day, December 2nd.

And for a get-away-from-it-all Today in London recommendation… in one word, Cheese. Go on one of Paxton & Whitfield’s one-day Cheese courses. Everything you want to know about cheese. How it’s made, how it’s served, what those flavours are. Complete with dinner and a certificate. What’s not to like? 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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