Friday, 22 January 2016

Giants of Academia & the Arts

… but, then again, nobody is perfect

George Bryan Brummell (7 June 1778 – 30 March 1840)

This is, of course, the iconic Regency dandy better known as Beau Brummell, and the very fellow we chaps owe our deepest gratitude to for introducing that ever-present staple of our wardrobes over the past two hundred years: the trouser. Where would we be without the trouser, one wonders? More than likely, still in knee breeches and stockings, and we really wouldn’t want that, now would we? After all, if such were the case, then the situation would very much be reversed and we’d then find it was our own shapely calves under the close critical scrutiny of some sharp feminine eye instead, and there is nothing quite so dispiriting than to discover that the general opinion of womankind is united in the insistence that, “his legs aren’t very much to write home about, are they?” No indeed, so we have much to thank him for, despite the ludic epithet, though you can see why he’d’ve wanted to change it. He could hardly have gone with George when, all the while he was shinning up the greasy pole, he was mates with the Prince Regent (later George IV) because two Georges on the scene would’ve been far too confusing but, equally, it would’ve been a mighty tough call to have attempted to write his name into the pages of History if all he’s got left otherwise is Bryan. Somehow Bryan Brummell just doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?

As it goes, by the time Bryan arrived on the scene, much of the shinning had already been undertaken, seeing his paternal grandfather, William, had come from very humble origins, being a mere valet, though he was employed by Charles Monson (Deputy Paymaster of the Forces) and was, by all accounts “a very excellent servant.” (Meaning toady, probably). He did so well for himself that, by 1748, he was married and had a house on Jermyn Street, the family living downstairs and the apartments above being let out. To all this he added two sons, including our man’s pater, who was christened, with astounding inventiveness, William – it seems that the Brummells were about as creative as the House of Hanover when it came to the naming game – but known as “Billy.” As luck would have it, Charles Jenkinson, MP, popped in to stay upstairs for a spell and took rather a shine to young Billy, spiriting him away to be his clerk while he was busy being Joint Secretary to the Treasury, a post that would eventually be taken over by Lord North in 1767, who was equally as glowing about the lad, making him his private secretary and keeping him on when he went on to become Prime Minister (well, First Lord of the Treasury actually, seeing that “Prime Minister” was a term of abuse back then). Alas, however, Lord North was rather more gifted at pole-climbing than he was at being on top of it, achieving very little at all but managing to lose America while he was about it. 

Despite Lord North having displayed all the staggering ineptitude that we’ve come to associate with a typical premiership (especially nowadays), young Billy went on to do rather well for himself, receiving several lucrative appointments and then, when it came to the bridal stakes, having snout enough to rummage round for some decent cash to marry, in the form of Mary Richardson, daughter of the Keeper of the Lottery Office – no doubt he took one look at her and thought to himself, “It could be you.” And it was. Before anyone could say, “Keep your eyes on that Billy Boy – he’s going places,” he’d gone places, including a pad in Hampton Court Palace and a country retreat in Berkshire, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Charles James Fox, Richard Sheridan and Sir Joshua Reynolds. To round things off nicely, he produced (well, got his wife to, anyway) a pair of sons, exhausting his personal stock of boys’ names on the eldest, William, so that he was then obliged to hunt round for an alternative for his second, somehow coming up with the obsequiously sycophantic George (name of every English King that century, even if they were all undeniably German) and then plucking Bryan from somewhere right out of the blue. So, thanks to the fact that Billy was then fawner-in-chief to one of Britain’s most uninspiring Prime Ministers, our man got the headstart of being born at 10 Downing Street, making him already a member of a very select club indeed. All this hobnobbing explains how the young Brummell boys came to be captured in oils by Reynolds, though not how Sir Josh made such an utter pig’s ear of the task.

Being as Number Ten was where our man first donned raimentry, let’s tarry there a moment, shall we? A bit like a Prime Minister, in fact. Though without all the pompous arrogance and the We-Know-Best condescension, of course. This desirable residence actually started life as three separate houses: a mansion looking out over St. James's Park (known as “the House at the Back,” occupied for many a year by Thomas Knevett, Keeper of Whitehall Palace, whose sole claim to fame is that of capturing Guido Fawkes in 1605, though hardly an astounding feat of detection, seeing Fawkes happened to be conveniently standing right next to thirty six barrels of gunpowder at the time); a townhouse behind it (which actually was at the back); and a cottage. When the mansion fell vacant in 1732, George II offered all three to Walpole (for “services to the nation” – basically services to Walpole) but he only accepted on condition it would be for the use of the First Lord, rather than his personal property. He knew what he was doing all right. The street had been erected by Sir George Downing between 1682 and 1684 who, whilst he got Sir Christopher Wren to do the design part, did everything else as cheaply and shoddily as possible, thereby setting the standard for our construction industry ever after. Downing slung them up quickly on soft soil with shallow foundations, the facades having lines painted on them to look like mortar. Quite understandably, he never lived in his own houses. For the next three hundred years it was in a state of almost constant repair, so much so that First Lords aplenty refused to live there, with only sixteen of them taking up residence until 1902. These included Walpole, of course, and Lord North, making it pure chance that our man was born there at all. By 1958, the place was described as being full of dry rot, though that’s probably down to the fact that Harold Macmillan was then in power.

Back to Brummelling, dad Billy was always avariciously ambitious and, naturally enough, wanted his sons to turn out the same way so, quick as you like, he packed them both off to Eton. Nothing is known of how young Bryan did at his schooling but he did make a start on his sartorial career by modernising the trademark Eton cravat. And then adding a gold buckle to it. Why a cravat might need a gold buckle at all is a moot point but, rather than dubbing him Bling Brummell, they nicknamed him Buck. Then it was on to Oriel College, Oxford where, in 1793, having achieved little else except “making cotton stockings a thing of the past,” he left after only a year. This was mostly down to old man Billy pegging it in 1794 and leaving his fortune to be divided between all three children (there was a sister too), rather than all to the eldest son. In order to get cracking right away on spending so vast a sum (at least five million today), Bryan told his dad’s executors to secure him a commission in the Army, something swanky, say the Hussars.

And thus it was that he ended up as a cornet (that’s your lowest commissioned rank) in the Royal Hussars, with the Prince of Wales (that’s George, the Prince Regent) as their top bod. Apart from getting his nose broken by a horse, things went pretty swimmingly for our Bryan and, having caught the Regent’s eye and “fascinated” him, he quickly clambered up the ranks to lieutenant, then captain, though (thanks largely to his Royal patronage) he didn’t do much actual soldiering, being allowed to miss parades, shirk duties and pretty much carry on as he fancied. Which basically involved looking as elegant as was possible in the uniform, of which the Hussars had an infinite variety. The eye-watering cost of was them borne by the officers themselves, as were the colossal mess bills, seeing they never stinted on banquets and entertainments, and were known to be disorderly, drunken and immoral. Which rather suited our man, as it goes. In fact, such a reprobate was he that he ended up copping the blame from Princess Caroline of Brunswick (that’d be Caroline Amelia Elizabeth of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel – hardly what you’d call a looker and a tad whiffy too, by all accounts) for ruining her honeymoon, Prinny being drunk at the ceremony – our man was supposed to be keeping him out of bother – and passing out in the hearth on his wedding night. All in all, however, this Army lark was proving to be damnedly draining on the old wallet and so, when the regiment was ordered to Manchester, Bryan understandably thought enough’s enough and sold out his commission, excusing himself to the Right Royal Fatso on the grounds that he couldn’t possibly leave the Prince. Not when he needed to cling to the Regent and his set a while longer so he could launch his career in elegance al mufti.

By the time Bryan hit Civvy Street, Pitt was First Lording it (that’s Pitt the Younger, the Income Tax bod) and, in 1795, because he was fanatically keen on giving the French a good licking, he deemed the best way to do this was by taxing hair powder (it contained flour when harvests were bad), which pretty much put an end to wig-wearing, except amongst the hidebound and their servants (and the legal profession, of course, who still can’t shake the habit). Our man had already abandoned them by that stage, plumping instead for hair cut in the Roman fashion – à la Brutus, as it was known – all brushed forward, plenty on top and a fine set of bushy sideys to set it off. He also pioneered the shift towards “snugly tailored” pantaloons and went in for an understated elegance of style, compared to the brash outfits that Georgian blokes tended to favour. The daily routine for Bryan, and most aristocratic young gentlemen, involved making one's toilette and shopping before lunch, riding out or hitting a club after, followed by the theatre and a spot of gambling, finishing up with a party or a stew. In other words, they frittered away their days being idle parasitic loafers – or “aristocrats”, as we call them – who never got around to doing a single stroke. Well, not before stewtime, anyhow.

In 1799, Bryan moved into fashionable Chesterfield Street, with the sole ambition of becoming the best dressed gentleman in London, patronising various tailors to ensure none of them could nick the credit for making him famous. When asked how much it might cost to keep a chap in decent togs, he replied, “Why, with tolerable economy, I think it might be done with £800.” That’s over a hundred grand today – the average wage then was a pound a week. But (amazingly) he was renowned for his laconic wit , though this mostly seems to involve acerbic sneering of some kind, as in the case of the Duke of Bedford, who solicited our man’s opinion on his new jacket. Bryan turned him round and about, scrutinising him with a contemptuous eye and then declared, in a tone of dismayed wonder, “Bedford, do you call this thing a coat?” Told you he was a wit. He was also extremely fastidious when it came to getting up of a morning (well, we say morning, but he “liked the day to be well aired” before he’d enter it), supposedly taking five hours to get washed, shaved and dressed before he was ready to face the world, something that mightily impressed the ton, who then went in for doing exactly the same thing or else attending his levees to witness him going through the whole drawn-out palaver. Which included the enthralled Prince of Wales amongst their numbers. Bit odd, really, blokes going round to watch another bloke pulling on his pantaloons, but we’ll draw a veil over that one for now. By 1800, he had become Beau Brummell.

The ton, by the bye, is a French word (so you don’t pronounce the N) and comes from the phrase le bon ton, meaning good manners or high style, and generally referred to the uppermost ten thousand members of society (supposedly, though as it included bankers amongst them, you’ve got to wonder at the criteria for getting in – mind you, if the definition was someone with too much cash but not the faintest idea of what hard work might be, we can see their point). This bunch of philanderers and wastrels turned out to be a thoroughly bad influence on Beau and, despite lacking a fortune to match theirs, he was soon spending and gambling like there was no later on this afternoon, never mind tomorrow, quickly discovering that his wallet wasn’t quite so plump as once it had been. Though he was still the main man when it came to social standing, so he was able to get by – for now – on credit. Meanwhile, Prince George couldn’t help but notice that his more dashing and better-looking (by far) chum was hogging all the limelight, which piqued him rather, especially as he was King-in-Waiting, so their friendship began to cool. Not helped by the fact that his dad, George III, finally flew off with the cuckoos in 1811, leaving his heir to take up his second Regency and his advisors to whisper in the Right Royal shell-like a spot of judicial admonition along the lines of, “better ditch the impecunious walking clothes-horse, if you ever want to get the crown on your bonce, old boy.” Given the choice between being monarch or watching some jumped-up valet’s grandson putting his kit on, it was pretty much a no-brainer for George. Which was lucky, seeing he was pretty much a no-brainer too.

Come July 1813 and matters turned as ugly as they could, given the foppish mannered elegance society was ruled by then. Down at Watier’s (the Dandy Club, as Byron dubbed it), Beau was hosting a ball with mates Lord Alvanley, Henry Mildmay and Henry Pierrepoint when who should turn up but the Prince of Whales, who greeted Alvanley and Pierrepoint cordially enough but then stared Brummell and Alvanley hard in the face without ever saying a dickie bird. In other words, cut them dead. Naturally, a chap like our Beau wasn’t going to stand for any of that, so he coolly turned to his fellow insultee and inquired, “Alvanley, who's your fat friend?” Well, that did it. All friendship ceases, as the phrase goes. But, even though Brummell had more or less forced society to choose between him and the Regent, he still managed to retain loyalty and approval where it mattered.

Alas, however, his spectacular rise was followed by an inevitable crash and, with creditors pounding at his door, he was eventually forced to flee in order to escape debtors’ prison. On 18 May 1816, he hotfooted it away to Calais, but he was already seriously ill. He still managed to get by (mostly by not paying) but money continued to be a constant problem and, by 1818, rumours were rife that he’d been offered five grand to pen his memoirs. And that the Prince of Wales had offered him six not to. Once George had finally got his prodigious royal backside parked on the throne, his attitude towards his erstwhile chum softened a tad and (around 1826) he made our man British Consul in Caen, which at least enabled him to start paying off some of his debts. There, he lodged with one Madame de St Ursain and promptly fell for her teenage daughter, the gloriously christened Aimable (which means “lovable,” don’t it, thus making the would-be pair Beautiful & Lovable?). Sadly, his luck was still out with the tide and the mother discovered his letters to the girl, kicking him unceremoniously out and packing her off to England.

Still as strapped for cash as ever, and with the hope of getting a higher-paid position instead, he wrote to Lord Palmerston along the lines of, “this here consulship isn’t really needed and, anyhow, something of a somewhat superior (and more lucrative) nature would suit one far better.” Amazingly enough, HM Government agreed. Well, they half did, writing back to inform him that they’d scrapped his job and would stop paying him at the end of May. He ended up hiding from the bailiffs, with supreme irony, in a wardrobe. His own attire became increasingly slovenly and, in May 1835, he found himself banged up in debtors’ prison until late July, when he was awarded compensation for having been sacked. But the glory days were over, never to return, and illness had now strengthened its grip on him, leaving him in pain, delusional and depressed. The end was in sight.

For someone called Beau, he never had a recognised “significant other.” He flirted outrageously but his friendships with women never progressed beyond that, though one of his last remaining possessions was a miniature of the left eye of Frederica, Duchess of York (wife of George IV’s brother), suggesting a strong attachment, though the intimacy of it will never be known. His preference, in that respect, was ever for the all-stew diet. Indeed, on observing that he had taken no vegetables with his dinner, one lady asked him whether he ever ate any. “Yes, madam,” he replied, “I once ate a pea.” Alas, it was his liking for stews that would do for him, providing the dose of what Shakespeare called Neapolitan Bone Ache (Troilus and Cressida), which led to his insanity and, finally, to his incarceration in Le Bon Sauveur Asylum, where he died on 30 March 1840.

Back home in England, his death went virtually unnoticed …

Now, more stew, anyone?


Beau Brummell: [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Lord North: Nathaniel Dance-Holland [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Joshua Reynolds’ Portrait of the Brummell Children: [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Sir George Downing: By Thomas Smith (d. 1691, active 1670s–1680s) ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester in Eton dress in 1914: By Bain News Service, publisher. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Caroline of Brunswick: James Lonsdale [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Prince of Whales: James Gillray [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Dandys: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Watier’s, the Dandy Club: Richard Dighton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Portrait of Gerard de Lairesse by Rembrandt van Rijn, circa 1665–67: Rembrandt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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