The Prince of Dandies

As the arbiter of taste to high society, Beau Brummell became a friend of the Prince Regent. It wouldn’t last. By Nicholas Storey.

Take your partners: a ball in the Argyll Rooms, likely venue of the Dandies' Ball.George Bryan ‘Beau’ Brummell (1778-1840) was the son of William Brummell, an upwardly mobile secretary to Lord North, prime minister from 1770 to 1782. Brummell probably first met George, Prince of Wales, later Prince Regent, on a royal visit to his school, Eton. His wit won him the prince’s notice and favour. On October 3rd, 1799 he sent the prince a canister containing one pound of Fribourg & Treyer’s Bureau blend snuff, at a cost of seven shillings and sixpence. By then Brummell had taken a commission in the 10th Light Dragoons (The Prince of Wales’ Own), though he left when the regiment was unexpectedly ordered north from Brighton to Manchester: ‘Think, your Royal Highness, Manchester!’

By his presence, wit and force of personality the newly civilian Brummell established himself as a man-about-town, with a generous patrimony, in a rented house, complete with valet and cook, at 4 Chesterfield Street, Mayfair. By general agreement of the haut ton, he became the acknowledged leader of London fashion.

His advice was eagerly sought, by the prince and many others, on everything from boot-blacking, to coat-fitting, to snuff-blending. His remarkable influence was evident on the occasion that the tobacconists Fribourg & Treyer received an eagerly awaited consignment of Martinique snuff, which Brummell had overlooked. Faced with the company’s full order book, Brummell sampled the snuff, condemned it as unfit and, at the word of this going out, orders were hastily cancelled. He then bought three jars for himself. News of this volte face spread and, as he had predicted, his own order book filled up. The snuff sold out. 

Lady Hester Stanhope, the niece of William Pitt the Younger and a great traveller, who earned the soubriquet ‘Queen of the Desert’, criticised Brummell for his airs and advised him to appear humbler. He replied:

My dear Lady Hester, if I were to do as you advise me, do you think I could stand in the middle of the pit at the opera and beckon to Lorne [heir to the Duke of Argyll] on one side, and Villiers [later Lord Jersey], on the other, and see them come to me?

Brummell gradually fell out of favour with the prince; although he continued as a leader of fashion in the set of the Duke and Duchess of York. One of the explanations for his fall was that he did not take kindly to the prince’s mistress, Mrs Fitzherbert, and did not hesitate to show his dislike. The prince was growing corpulent and Brummell took to referring to him behind his back as ‘Our Ben’ and to Mrs Fitzherbert as ‘Benina’ – a porter at Carlton House and a professional boxer were both nicknamed ‘Big Ben’, and there was also a man ‘Benjamin’, who would ride close to the prince in the park to give the impression that he was a royal favourite. Both the prince and his mistress heard about Brummell’s slight and were not pleased. Brummell certainly went too far when he openly referred to Mrs Fitzherbert as ‘Mistress’ Fitzherbert. Hearing this, at a house party at Claremont, an aristocratic retreat in Surrey, the prince asked Brummell to leave as soon as he arrived, in order to save Mrs Fitzherbert’s feelings, and he did so. Brummell then discovered that a snuff box which the prince had commissioned for him would not now be delivered. This stung Brummell, especially as the commission had been to replace a snuff box that the prince had insisted on taking from Brummell’s own collection. A snuff box was among Brummell’s effects sold off by the auctioneer James Christie in May 1816. Inside it was a note which read: ‘This snuff-box was intended for the Prince Regent, if he had conducted himself with more propriety towards me.’

Brummell always denied another rumour, that the rift was caused because he had, in company, seriously breached royal protocol by saying ‘Wales, ring the bell’, although he also claimed that he might easily (and harmlessly) have said it if he had been alone with the prince.

Brummell had better luck in gambling: he reputedly ruined George Harley Drummond, a member of Drummond’s Bank, in a single evening’s play. Indeed, Brummell, Lord Alvanley, Sir Henry Mildmay and Henry Pierrepont were all enjoying such a good run that they decided to give a ‘Dandies’ Ball’ to celebrate. Various accounts of the event suggest that it took place in July 1813 and when Brummell’s first biographer, William Jesse, mentions the ball in volume one of his life (first published in 1844), he places it in the Argyle (Argyll) Rooms. These were subscription assembly rooms in what is now Little Argyll Street, just off Regent Street. Jesse tells us that, although the prince was on bad terms with Brummell and Mildmay, he did attend the ball but had ‘cut’ both men at the entrance, with the result that Brummell had declined to attend the prince to his carriage when he left.

However, in the appendix to Jesse’s biography, there is an anonymous but allegedly first-hand account of the Dandies’ Ball from someone who knew Brummell well. According to this account, the ball was held in the Hanover Square Rooms:

O could I as Harlequin frisk,
And thou be my Columbine fair,
My wand should, with one magic whisk,
Transport us to Hanover Square …

(from ‘The Beautiful Incendiary in the style of the Hon. W.R. Spencer’, by James and Horace Smith in their Rejected Addresses, 1812.)

The second account runs as follows:

When the approach of the Prince was announced, each of the four gentlemen took, in due form, a candle in his hand. Pierrepoint [sic], as knowing the Prince, stood nearest the door, with his wax light, and Mildmay, as being young and void of offence, opposite. Alvanley, with Brummell opposite, stood immediately within the other two. The Prince at length arrived, and, as was expected, spoke civilly and with recognition to Pierrepoint [sic], and then turned, and spoke a few words to Mildmay; advancing, he addressed several sentences to Alvanley, and then turned towards Brummell, looked at him, but as if he did not know who he was, or why he was there, and without bestowing upon him the slightest symptom of recognition. It was then, at the very instant he passed on, that Brummell, seizing with infinite fun and readiness the notion that they were unknown to each other, said across to his friend, and aloud, for the purpose of being heard:

‘Alvanley, who’s your fat friend?’

Those who were in front, and saw the Prince’s face, say that he was cut to the quick, by the aptness of the satire.

There are even accounts which have Brummell uttering the words in St James’s Street. Thomas Raikes, in his A Portion of a Journal Kept by Thomas Raikes Esq., from 1831-1847, writes that Brummell saw one Jack Lee in the street speaking to the prince and straight away said to Lee: ‘Who’s your fat friend?’, mortifying the prince. Raikes then relates Thomas Moore’s parody of a letter from the Prince to the Duke of York, in Moore’s Twopenny Postbag (1813):

I indulge in no hatred, and wish there may come ill
To no mortal, except, now I think on’t, Beau Brummell
Who declared t’other day, in a superfine passion,
He’d cut me and bring the old King into fashion.

Another version has the prince and Lord Moira stopping to talk to Lord Alvanley, who was with Brummell on a morning walk. The prince ignored Brummell and, as he moved on, Brummell said to his companion: ‘Alvanley, who’s your fat friend?’

Lord Houghton places the incident at a function in Burlington House but, given that he was barely four in July 1813, he plainly was not a witness.

Some historians argue that the Prince Regent would not, as a guest, have ‘cut’ any of his hosts at a ball. However we should recall the very public humiliation that he (‘the first gentleman of Europe’) inflicted on Queen Caroline, who he had married in 1795. First, he (unsuccessfully) tried to divorce her for adultery and strip her of her title by the Pains and Penalties Bill (during the course of which, Caroline was effectively tried before the House of Lords) and then he had her physically barred with bayonets from his coronation in July 1821, during which the doors of Westminster Abbey were slammed in her face.

Whichever account of Brummell’s retort is correct, it appears possible that he made it in return for being snubbed by the prince and it has become central to the Brummell legend.

There were other instances of Brummell annoying the Prince Regent. One (also anonymously relayed to Jesse) mentions an incident in the lower waiting room at the opera (in a building on the site of what is now Her Majesty’s Theatre). The prince was waiting with his suite for his carriage and Brummell entered the waiting room with friends. Not seeing the prince, Brummell was pressed further and further back towards him and, had not a member of the prince’s suite tapped Brummell on the shoulder, they would have collided. Brummell turned sharply around:

and saw that there was not much more than a foot between his nose and the Prince of Wales’s. I watched him with intense curiosity, and observed that his countenance did not change in the slightest degree, nor did his head move; they looked straight into each other’s eyes; the Prince evidently amazed and annoyed. Brummell, however, did not quail, or show the least embarrassment. He receded quite quietly, and backed slowly step by step, till the crowd closed between them, never once taking his eyes off those of the Prince. It is impossible to describe the impression made by this scene on the by-standers; there was in his manner nothing insolent, nothing offensive; by retiring with his face to the Regent he recognised his rank, but he offered no apology for his inadvertence, (as a mere stranger would have done), no recognition as an acquaintance; as man to man, his bearing was adverse and uncompromising.

An account of another embarrassing encounter was also given to Jesse by an eyewitness:

His Royal Highness was going to the Picture-Gallery in Pall Mall, and Brummell, who was walking with some other man about ten yards in front of me, was exactly opposite the door of the exhibition, as the low, dark red carriage stopped. Brummell evidently saw it, and saw who was in it, though he pretended not to do so, and when the two sentries presented arms, he, with an air of affected surprise and mock dignity, which was most amusing, gravely raised his hat, as if the salute had been to him: as he did this he paused, turning his head very graciously towards the sentries, and his back to the carriage window, which he was quite close to. I saw, as I passed, the Regent’s angry look, but he said nothing.

Brummell maintained that his extraordinary streak of gambling success turned to failure when he lost a lucky sixpence with a hole in it, which prompted the loss of loans that he had taken out to make good his original debts. To escape his many creditors, he fled to Calais on the night of May 16th, 1816.

In September 1821 George IV, as he had become, passed through Calais and spotted Brummell, caught up in the press of the crowd. The king had exclaimed ‘Good God – Brummell!’ After turning deathly pale, Brummell had gone inside. During his stay the king ran dry of snuff and some was sent for. When he tried the fresh supply, the king asked Sir Benjamin Bloomfield: ‘Why, sir, where did you get your snuff? There is only one person I know who can mix snuff in this way.’ Bloomfield replied to the king: ‘It is some of Mr Brummell’s, Sir’ and there the conversation ended. One might speculate whether, if Brummell had swallowed his pride and taken his bow, he might have been forgiven by the king. Instead he had before him almost 19 years of begging his remaining friends for sustenance. The king left Calais, observing to Sir Arthur Paget, a member of his party: ‘I leave Calais and have not seen Brummell.’ They never met again. However, Ian Kelly tells us in his study Beau Brummell: the Ultimate Man of Style (2006) that, despite everything which had happened, one of George IV’s final acts as he lay on his death bed was to consent to Brummell’s appointment as British Consul at Caen.

The last chapter of Jesse’s biography ruefully suggests that Brummell was destined to be forgotten. Yet there is a London County Council commemorative blue plaque on the front of his house in Chesterfield Street and a magnificent statue by Irena Sedlecka, funded by subscription and erected in 2002 in Jermyn Street, commanding the entrance to the Piccadilly Arcade. Brummell was highly regarded by his peers, too. Lord Byron (himself possessed of a sharp wit), said that Brummell was one of the great men of the age, placing himself third, Napoleon second and Brummell first. The critic and essayist Leigh Hunt told Jesse that he recalled Byron talking about Brummell’s appearance, judging that: ‘there was nothing remarkable in his style of dress except a certain exquisite propriety’.

Today Brummell is principally remembered for his character, his perfectionism and as an icon of originality, of a determined defiance and for the force of a solipsistic and seemingly disengaged personality. He was famed for the tie of his cravat, the fit of his coat, the polish of his boots, the ‘nice conduct of a clouded cane’, his indulgence in Georgian feasts and their deep potations. Most of all he loved ‘the music of the dice box’ and the (ultimately) doom-laden dealing of the cards on the baize. Once, emerging broken from a gaming ‘Hell’ in Jermyn Street, he went up to Watier’s Club on Piccadilly, exclaiming that this symbol of high living  was without a shilling to his name in the world.

Nicholas Storey is the author of History of Men’s Fashion (Pen and Sword, 2008).

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