The Amateur of Fashion
The Amateur of Fashion
S. C. Hall
The St. James’s Magazine, 1862
Towards the conclusion of the first decade of the present century, a young man made his appearance in the height of the London season in Bond Street, attracting as much attention from the loungers about Long’s and the old Naval Club nearly opposite, as the remarkable vehicle in which he was seen.
He drove a pair of horses that, from their figure and action, must have been matched at an enormous expense; the curricle, then new — for such it was — was pronounced the most elegant carriage that had ever been turned out of Long Acre. The body, beautifully painted and richly lined, was shaped like a concave scallop-shell, mounted on light springs. The new harness glittered with silver; and conspicuous among the ornaments was a crest, displaying a gamecock with expanded wings and open beak with the legend beneath, “While I live, I’ll crow.”
The wheels were bright with well-harmonized colours, and a highly polished cross-bar was balanced over the backs of the well-groomed steeds, whose foam tossed about like flakes of snow as they curveted and champed under the guidance of their driver. The stranger was of medium height, yet of well-proportioned figure. His features did not find many admirers, but this may have been owing to the darkness of his complexion, for though somewhat harsh in their outline, their expression was not disagreeable. The blackness and curliness of his hair and whiskers, added to the tropical tint of his skin, made many of the spectators set him down as an Eastern prince; and it was readily believed that he was some powerful and wealthy rajah, direct from India, on a visit to the illustrious “John Company.” He wore the queer-shaped beaver hat then in vogue; a tall shirt collar, encircled by a yellow bandanna, with a scientific tie; a close-fitting blue surtout, the front entirely covered with frogs and braid; tight pantaloons of ribbed cloth, of the same colour; and Hessian boots, carefully wrinkled up the leg, and set off at top with a rich tassel.
By his side sat a younger man, somewhat different in complexion, as well as in other characteristics; but as he happened to be the writer of these pages, I shall of course, be excused any further reference to them or him.
My companion was no Eastern prince; he was the heir of an extensive coffee planter in the island of Demerara, reported to have left immense wealth, as well as large estates, with almost innumerable slaves, producing vast quantities of sugar as well as coffee. He had recently arrived in England, with the determination of making a figure in the gay world of London, in which the reputation of £40,000 a year to squander had already sufficed to bring him a fair share of fame, though only within a circumscribed limit. His portrait, however, was being engraved for a magazine, and his patronage was eagerly sought by such West-end tradesmen as had contrived to learn his residence.
The cause of my being associated with him was to be found in the fact that he was paying his addresses to a kinswoman of mine, who, however, was far from being satisfied that “to that complexion she must come at last,” and gave him no encouragement. I, being frequently in her company, shared largely in the attentions the dusky suitor bestowed upon her family, and, as I must confess, liking the fun of the thing, was often with him when he drove through the public thoroughfares.
He was extremely amiable, and possessed a simplicity of character that made us look more indulgently on his eccentricities. He was liberal to profusion, and permitted no expense to hinder the realization of any idea that promised to bring him under the favourable notice of the higher classes of English society.
No channel seemed to directly and expeditiously to lead to this cherished object as the stage. Rumours had reached London that he had astonished the audience of a provincial theatre by his performance of one of the most arduous characters in the English drama. Suddenly all his numerous acquaintances about town received private and confidential announcements that he was about to make a similar experiment, — indeed, had paid a large sum for permission to appear on the metropolitan boards, in one of Shakespeare’s finest plays. Our astonishment was increased when we beheld in the Haymarket bills the tragedy of “Romeo and Juliet” advertised for representation:
ROMEO, BY AN AMATEUR OF FASHION.
HIS FIRST APPEARANCE IN LONDON.
Of course I made my way to the little establishment in the Haymarket on that memorable evening; in truth, everybody went who had the slightest knowledge of the new actor. As the fame of his singularities and of his enormous fortune had by this time spread far and wide, the house was crowded in every part.
If there is one character in the wide range of the wonderful creations of our great dramatic poet that makes unusual demands on the person, the voice, the features, and the talent of the individual attempting its personation, it is the ardent lover of the impassioned Juliet. Imagine, therefore, a countenance that might readily have been mistaken for that of a creole, and a figure which at every movement betrayed total ignorance of dramatic gesticulation, dressed in a conventional costume that then passed unchallenged as the dress of an Italian nobleman of the sixteenth century, the most remarkable portions of which were, a white satin hat, surmounted by a plume of ostrich feathers of the same colour, on a head with the wiry black hair at the back tied in the shape of a door knocker, with a short pigtail; white satin tunic, breeches, and shoes, profusely ornamented with gold spangles and modern jewelery; and find silk stockings that covered a pair of legs jealously maintained in a position before the spectator the most favourable to the display of their symmetry. Imagine such a person in such a dress, with the addition of a diamond-hilted Court sword of the nineteenth century — one of my West Indian friend’s latest extravagances — indulging in gestures totally new to a theatrical audience, and grimaces equally original, and shouting in a voice curiously harsh, and the reader will comprehend something of the effect he produced.
From the commencement of this singular performance, boxes, pit, and galleries were in an exalted state of good humour. Indeed, the majority of the crowded house having been furnished with tickets at the cost of the new actor, ought not to have been otherwise. They testified their gratitude by their lively appreciation of his merit — every movement, almost every look, exciting their approbation; and this was given not only with a hearty zeal that testified to its genuineness, but occasionally with a heartier mirth that as conspicuously evinced their satisfaction. All the interesting passages won rounds of applause; but in the balcony scene the impression created was tremendous. Charles Kemble, though a very great favourite, had never produced half the effect. Many persons were affected to tears; which, however, streamed down cheeks untouched by the slightest influence of sorrow.
The crowning portion of the performance was unquestionably the catastrophe. Though the actor had exerted himself with wonderful success from his first remarkable entrance before the footlights, he appeared to have reserved his greatest dramatic powers for the final scene. Every portion won the most vehement plaudits, which rose to demonstrations of an extraordinary description when he died upon the body of the really unfortunate Juliet. Round after round of vehement applause followed each other in rapid succession — every one rivaling his neighbour in a determination to do justice to the claims of this theatrical phenomenon.
In the very midst of the storm the dead Romeo solemnly rose to life, and, his ostrich plumes majestically waving, his spangles shining like stars, with his diamond-hilted rapier carefully carried in his hand, advanced, wearing a highly gratified smirk upon his dusky visage, towards the orchestra, and gravely placing his legs in the favourite position, bowed to his enlightened patrons amid a hurricane of encores, bravos, and other encouraging exclamations. He then — still bearing the precious deposit — solemnly walked back to his post beside his poisoned mistress, —i n whom certain movements about her waist showed that she was far from being as dead as she looked, — and deliberately — with identically the same gestures and articulation — died over again!
The performances was so thoroughly unprecedented, and created so unusual an impression on the mind of the play-going public, that the new actor was called upon more than once to repeat it. I may as well here add, that his reputation travelled far and wide. His good nature was appealed to frequently, and never in vain, by traveling Thespians, who were certain of crowded houses — barns, I mean — whenever they were so fortunate as to announce in their bills the name of “The Amateur of Fashion.” The result was, that he became so completely identified in the popular mind with the character he personated, that he ever afterwards received its name as a prefix.
Notwithstanding this (as my friend was pleased to consider it) “brilliant success,” he was not brought any nearer to the fulfillment of his ambitious desires. He received invitations, it is true, to routs and assemblies where a few notabilities were seen, and was for a time looked upon, at least at Lady Corke’s, as a lion of some repute; but the wish of his soul was to gain admission to the circle at Carlton House, where he was sure to meet the deities of fashion, who made that celebrated mansion their Olympus. Unfortunately, the Prince of Wales had never noticed “The Amateur of Fashion,” and months passed away in the hope deferred that makes dreamers of impossible distinction occasionally heart-sick.
He now ventured to express to certain “gentlemen at large,” who borrowed his money, rode in his curricle, and ate his dinners, his secret aspirations: these, in the same extremely confidential manner, found their way, by various channels, to some of the Prince’s attendants or associates, and, as it was supposed, through them to the ear of His Royal Highness; for one day, to the Amateur’s inconceivable, to his inexpressible gratification — a gratification that with incredible activity he presently endeavoured to diffuse in every possible direction — a letter came to his address, by the twopenny post, enclosing an invitation card to the next evening reunion at Carlton House.
It is impossible to describe the excitement this much-coveted distinction created in the mind of my eccentric friend. His tailor was sent for post-haste, and at least an hour of precious time passed in deciding upon the materials of a new dress suit. The handsomest ruffles, the most perfect cravat, were purchased without delay, and entirely regardless of expense, He was measured for a pair of pumps, that were to be fastened with gold buckles set with diamonds. The diamond-hilt sword was polished all over with wash-leather and a silk handkerchief; and diamond buttons, a diamond brooch, and a diamond ring bought for the occasion.
All proper preparations having been completed, he rehearsed the speeches he intended to make to his royal host, and prepared himself to take his share in the brilliant conversation that must necessarily ensue.
The night fixed for the party arrived, and Carlton House was as gay as a profusion of wax lights, and abundance of rococo furniture, and a throng of ultra-fashionable company could make it.
It is vain to attempt to do justice to the magnificence that, at the period to which I refer, or rather in this and one or two equally celebrated palatial residences, was considered taste. I will therefore merely say, that the domestics wore their state liveries, and the officers of the Household their Court suits, both displaying themselves conspicuously in the sculptured vestibule, along the well-lighted, crimson carpeted staircase, and in the luxurious anterooms that led into the grand saloon, where the princely host and his patrician company had assembled.
As the most prominent figure in a most remarkable tableau, I am bound to delineate him with more than ordinary care; but the Prince of Wales, under the peculiar circumstances I am endeavouring to narrate, demands talents from his portrait painter to which I am afraid I can put forward no pretensions.
In his dress, as in his manners, His Royal Highness aimed at perfection. His toilet, therefore, was singularly refined and elaborate. On this particular occasion he wore the uniform of his regiment, which unquestionably set off his handsome person to the greatest advantage. It was splendidly embroidered; in short, it was in every respect worthy to adorn a royal colonel who possessed unrivaled connoisseurship in dress, and was known to be as thoroughly acquainted with the anatomy of a coat as he was perfect in the physiology of a cravat — the most exalted attainment then possible in the dandy curriculum.
With his fine head of hair carefully powdered and confined behind by a ribbon, he stood sipping out of a Sevres coffee-cup, in the centre of a group of both sexes, to all of whom he was conversing in high spirits, whilst other distinguished-looking persons stood or sat at a distance, as though belonging to a less privileged coterie. Some talked in a low tone, as they supplied themselves with the refreshing beverage that was being handed round, but many contented themselves with playing the more quiet part of observers.
Most of the gentlemen were in uniform, showing that they belonged either to the Court, the military, or the naval service; but there were some half-dozen individuals in private dress — that is, wearing the fashionable evening costume of civilians. Its striking features were a long-tailed cloth coat, with lace ruffles; high shirt collar, bound by a fold of stiffened muslin, tied with an elaborate bow; satin waistcoat, and breeches; silk stockings and pumps. Such persons were well-known caricatures; and many, indeed, figured in the print-shop windows in St. James’s Street. They were the leading “dandies” of their day. It must be confessed that the Prince was growing stout, but still was graceful in person, and handsome in face.
There were a few ladies in the apartment, all more or less partaking of the best type of English aristocratic beauty, richly apparelled in full Court costume — small waists and demi-trains — with ostrich feathers in their hair, and rare jewels on their arms, necks, fingers, and ears; but the most remarkable was an aristocratic brunette, with lustrous dark eyes, wearing a rich robe of Genoa velvet, trimmed with Mechlin lace, and a turban apparently made of a Delhi scarf, in which the plumage of a bird of paradise increased the effect produced by the large diamonds fastened on the folds. She stood near a piano, then just invented as an improvement on the harpsichord, at which sat a foreign professor, a dark-visaged man, with a head of black curly hair, dressed in the latest Parisian fashion, who enjoyed high patronage as a musicmaster.
The Prince, having delivered himself of a repartee with princely success, joined the patrician beauty at the piano, and presently they sung together the tender duet from “Il Don Giovanni,” “La ci darem,” to the professor’s accompaniment. Very tenderly indeed was it vocalized, interrupted only by a murmured bravo! or bravissimo! — brava! or bravissima! from the swarthy possessor of the music-stool, or a whisper of admiration from the courtly cognoscenti in the background.
At the conclusion, the pianist broke out into transports, expressed partly in enthusiastic French, partly in energetic Italian, and the attentive chorus in the rear ventured to breath audibly their transports in the vulgar vernacular.
“Well, Latour, have I fallen off much in my singing?” inquired the royal vocalist, taking a pinch of the choicest of Fribourg’s productions, from a gold snuff-box set round with brilliants.
“Fallen off!” exclaimed the Court musician, apparently in extreme amazement, “on the contrary, your Royal Highness has improved marvelously! And as for my Lady Countess, her voice is ravishing! The divine maestro would have been in ecstasy to have heard his duo to such perfection. I have reason to be proud of two such unrivaled pupils!”
The professor glanced round the circle with confidence, and beheld, as he expected, the fullest confirmation of the justice of his opinion. The Prince was evidently pleased — singing was one of the qualifications His Royal Highness prided himself in possessing in an eminent degree; and the Countess might have appeared to be blushing, had no one been aware that her colour was only transient, when affected by the agency of soap and water.
“Yes — ah! the thing is pretty! Exceedingly good style, Mozart! Nice music to go to sleep to,” here exclaimed, in a drawling manner, an elaborately dressed gentleman, belonging evidently to the class of civilians I just now referred to, coming languidly forward from an ottoman where he had been reclining, and, it must be confessed, yawning during the performance. “But I’m monstrous glad I wasn’t asked to sing it! Horribly fatiguing, I should think!”
“Ah, Brummell!” replied the Prince, good-humouredly, “we don’t expect such prodigious exertions from you. A man who surrenders all his time to the study of her person cannot, we know, find leisure for cultivating his voice.” The sentence was regarded as a bon mot, and a general laugh followed its delivery — a laugh, though, by no means boisterous, as the exertion it would have required, the tight-laced exquisites, who assisted in producing it, could not have attempted. The Court musician was the only person who appeared to thoroughly enjoy the joke. His hilarity, however, was a little in excess.
“Mr. Brummell is content to gain distinction in a quiet way!” observed one of the circle, with a particularly hilarious and rather intellectual countenance. “He was evidently no ambition making a noise in the world!”
“Not bad, Sherry, by Jove!” cried the Prince and immediately the silk bags on the coat collars of the gentlemen, and the ostrich feathers in the head-dresses of the ladies, were agitated by the same mirthful inclination — the possessor of the music-stool laughing at least a semitone higher than before.
“I’m obliged to you, Mr. Sheridan, for your opinion of my vocal powers,” answered the Beau, with a bow that was scarcely perceptible; then added, with much emphasis, “Nevertheless, I beg permission to remind some people that the animal usually considered to make the loudest noise in domestic life rarely gets appreciated as one out of the common!”
The professor did not join the laugh this time.
One of the royal pages now appeared at the door, and immediately a gentleman of the Prince’s suite moved towards him. He presently returned, and remained for a few minutes in earnest conversation with another member of the Household, apparently in a higher position, who was conversing with a lady near the piano. The latter functionary speaking somewhat imperatively, attracted the attention of his royal master, who was turning over the leaves of the dark-eyed Countess’s music-book, while M. Latour played a piece of his own composition, that he had lately dedicated to his patron.
“What is it, Bloomfield?” inquired the Prince, looking up. The person thus addressed displayed an invitation card, which he said just been presented at the door.
“A manifest forgery!” exclaimed His Royal Highness, examining it through a gold eye-glass; then added, with a look of displeasure, “Some one has taken an unpardonable liberty in concocting this.”
There were signs of more than ordinary curiosity in all the gusts, male and female, and those in the background came forward to show the interest the took in the very strange affair.
“Do you know this person, Brummell?” inquired the Prince, placing the card in his hand. The dandy, with a critical face, read the name written upon it. His features in a moment expressed the most intense astonishment, with a large amount of indignation.
“I know him!” he exclaimed, apparently horror-struck, “why, he makes sugar and sells coffee, — in short, is a sort of grocer. How could I know such a man?”
He passed the card contemptuously to a largely whiskered exquisite, who had been glancing at the inscription over his shoulder.
“Do you know him, Alvanley?” inquired their host.
“Is it the black fellow who played Romeo?” replied the individual thus addressed, affectedly, and elevating his eyebrows and his short collar simultaneously. “Of course, I don’t know him in the least.”
“Are you acquainted with him, Petersham?”
“I cannot boast of that honour, I assure your Royal Highness.”
“Is he a friend of yours, Sherry?”
“Not that I know of. But were it possible for the poor man to patronize me handsomely, I couldn’t be so hard-hearted as to object to his countenance.”
When the laugh had subsided, the great dandy said authoritatively, “The person is not presentable; that style of thing cannot be permitted here, positively.”
The Prince seemed to have been good-naturedly waiting for an excuse for not disappointing the dupe of an unworthy trick. He looked round the circle, and beheld in the general expression a decided disinclination to associate with the alleged “sort of grocer.”
Time brought about its revenges, when the neglected, almost forgotten dandy, after a long expatriation, in vain strained his feeble sight to observe a recognition in the countenance of “the fat friend” of his brighter days, as the latter, a crowned king, passed through the French town in which he lingered out a melancholy existence. The change that awaited the Court wit was still nearer, and was at least equally humiliating.
“I do not like this affair at all,” observed the Prince, at last, with a vexed look; then added, in a kindly tone, to Colonel Bloomfield, “Go to this gentlemen, and undeceive him in a way not to hurt his feelings — taking care to express the extreme regret of the Prince of Wales that such an accident should have occurred.
“Now, Lady Jersey,” he said, turning to the dark-eyed countess, “let us try, with Latour, something by the new Italian composer, whose productions are now so much in vogue on the Continent.”
“My dear sir!” exclaimed a fashionably dressed man, as he stopped a sedan that had just left the portico of Carlton Palace, and in a very cordial manner addressed a gentleman in cocked hat and Court suit, richly ornamented with diamonds, with a diamond-hilted sword at his side, who, as the few murky lamps at the house doors and the links of the bearers showed, possessed a singularly sombre complexion, “let me congratulate you on your well-deserved distinction! Of course you found His Royal Highness a most charming host?”
“Oh, there was some irregularity, Major; I do not exactly understand what,” cried the unsuspicious dupe, putting his well-curled head close to the window. “But the Prince sent me a most kind message. I have no doubt that His Royal Highness will speedily set it right.”
The chairmen presently proceeded with their burthen into Pall Mall, where they were again stopped.
“Ah, my dear fellow! is it you?” exclaimed another cordial voice. “‘Pon my life, I’m delighted to see you looking so well. Just come from the royal party, eh? Didn’t the Prince greatly admire your diamonds?”
“Well, Doctor, you see there was a slight mistake; but I have no doubt that I shall be sent for by His Royal Highness, from whom I had the honour of receiving a most obliging message.”
The sedan was suffered to proceed; but it seemed as if all its occupant’s most particular friends were in the streets that lay in his way home on this particular night, and at this particular hour; for along Pall Mall, and up St. James’s Street, in Piccadilly, and even to the door of his lodgings in Dover Street, the chair was continually being stopped by well-dressed gentlemen, who rivaled each other in the warmth of their congratulations. All received slight variations of the same reply, in which the civility of the Prince of Wales was always prominently referred to. My friend felt wonderfully pleased at the prodigious interest his visit to Carlton House had excited and never entertained the slightest suspicion of the hoax that had so successfully been played upon him.
The simplicity of the Amateur of Fashion was displayed in as striking manner in the Pump-room at Bath. He was surrounded by persons of both sexes, possessed of certain pretensions to rank and fashion; and one gentleman of influence expressed unqualified admiration of his legs — then, as usual, in close-fitted pantaloons and well-wrinkled Hessians. In a moment they were in the favourite position, regarded by the owner with a smile of complacency. A captain in the Guards ventured, in a delicate way, to insinuate that a limb so perfectly shaped must owe something to art, especially at the graceful swell in the rear.
Far from being offended, or even surprised, at the suggestion, the Amateur appeared to take it quite as a matter-of-course compliment, and, dexterously pulling off his boot before the astonished company, offered to submit to any extent of inspection. This seemed too much for some of those who were nearest him, particularly the ladies, who, in evident apprehensions of what might come next, made a hasty retreat.
Not noticing this, my dusky friend, with a settled gravity which indicated his idea of the importance of the transaction, fluently descanted on the genuineness of the member, turning it about in every possible direction, that the amused spectators might see it to the best advantage. Toes, heel, calf, shin, and instep, were equally well ventilated, amid a chorus of wondering exclamations; till the performer, as though prompted by a sudden recollection, placed himself in his favourite position, gazing with ineffable content on silk stocking and pantaloon.
His lendings and spendings proceeded in a reckless course; but after a few seasons, the estate at Demerara, large though it was, began to give signs of exhaustion. Sugars fell, either in value or in quantity, and coffees were so depreciated in the market, that the heir of the wealthy planter found himself straitened in his resources. In time he was obliged to dispose of his handsome curricle — crowing cocks and all, to send his valuable horses to Tattersall’s, and to deposit numerous diamonds, including his magnificent sword, with the relation usually appealed to for assistance in a reverse of circumstances.
These expedients not sufficing to set the Amateur of Fashion at his ease, and West India property, in consequence of political changes, descending rapidly in deterioration, he found himself quite unable to meet his liabilities. He expatriated himself, and lived for several years in quiet retirement in a well-known town on the French coast, much frequented by Englishmen who stood in any apprehension from their compatriots John Doe and Richard Roe.
My friend was thus lost sight of altogether in his old haunts, and by his old associates; indeed, his name and fame had sunk into entire oblivion, when he contrived to effect an arrangement with his creditors, and once more made his appearance in London. No longer, however, dashing in his brilliant equipage through Rotten Row, or astonishing the habitués of Fop’s Alley with the lustre of his jewels. Even the frogged coat was discarded in favour of a garment suited to an elderly gentleman with a limited income. Nevertheless he clung with more than a lover’s devotion to pantaloons and Hessians; and by these, notwithstanding his long absence, he was sure to be recognized where he went.
“Bless my heart, Raikes,” cried an old member of Arthur’s, “here’s Romeo Coates!”
Newspapers and magazines were simultaneously thrown down, and there was a general rush to the open window, with as evident a curiosity as if caused by the advent of a resuscitated Pharaoh. Their astonishment was largely increased when they beheld the individual on whom they were gazing — who had overheard the exclamation — stop suddenly in his promenade, walk gravely back, and plant himself before the window in an attitude and with a manner familiar to all who had known him in his palmy days.
“My name, gentlemen,” he said, “is Robert Coates.”
He then took off his hate with a theatrical bow, and resumed his walk with the dignity of a well-graced actor retiring from the footlights after an ovation of popular applause. The effect of his demonstration on the members of Arthur’s may, perhaps be imagined; it certainly cannot be described.
Alas, poor Romeo! The end of my eccentric but amiable friend was truly lamentable. He had been married many years, and lived on the wreck of his fine fortune in quiet respectability. On quitting Covent Garden Theatre after an operatic performance, he remembered that he had left his lorgnettes in the box he had just vacated. He sprung out of his carriage, and rushed across the road, then crowded with vehicles; a cab, being driven rapidly away, knocked him down, and he was by the wheel going over his head. The few survivors of his old friends lamented him sincerely; for, notwithstanding his vanity and folly, he possessed an excellent heart, and was in many respects an accomplished gentleman — a marked contrast to more recent amateurs of fashion, whose careers have been remarkable only for coarse profligacy and vulgar excess.