I think the camera has been a great leveller. A case in point is the interwar years, the thirties especially. Whereas in earlier centuries anyone with money could accord great artists to immortalise them on canvas, the 1930’s saw kings and princes, politicians and minor nobility recorded by amateurs on camera. They make for a great and evocative record, but it’s the working classes that really shine in this medium. The aristocracy come across as slightly sinister, wooden puppets with their grave expressions, plus fours and tweeds—the women especially, many of them dour and looking like elderly men in drag.
This why Will Cross’s latest book. Tredegar House: Weekend Parties, frolics andfun is such a joy to read for any obsessed with this period.
The cover has a childlike simplicity. It hides, though, a myriad of sins. The book is awash with vintage photographs of the great and the good, pictures that force the eye to linger—especially with the waspish comments that accompany them, which is partly the value of the book.
How many of us have cardboard boxes filled with old black and whites of long dead relatives about whom we know nothing? Will Cross breathes life into these pictures. In some cases, unless you have a strong stomach, you almost wish he hadn’t.
In its heyday, the interwar years, the country house weekend was a ritual of frivolity and class privilege in a grey and socially deprived world. Looking back it brings to mind the butterfly as winter approaches—in this case world war, death duties and a working class with expanding horizons. By examining the notorious parties of Tredegar House, Will Cross has focused on a small but fascinating niche in local history.
Evan and Blue Boy in house party costume
the death of Courtney Morgan, Evan leapt from his father’s oppressive shadow into a world
of sunshine and excess, and in doing so helped bankrupt an ancient and vastly wealthy estate. His house parties were legendary, attracting Russian princesses, Greek royalty, and . . . H G Wells, lecherous and unashamedly parasitic. Guests mingled amongst rent boys and spies—which makes for wonderful gossip—and there is plenty of that in the book.
What gives this slim volume its heft is the meticulous research gleaned from what records there are of actual guests, their names and significance and, most importantly, when they attended. It’s a historical record, meaningless to many, but fascinating to the historian.
Amongst the names that crop up were two I found of particular interest: Evan Morgan’s factotum, Captain Henry (Harry) Ware, and the Marchesa Luisa Casati.
Captain Harry Ware
If I were to rewrite The Gift I’d incorporate Captain Ware as the satanic familiar acceding to his master’s lubricious desires—for a price. Ware was Evan Morgan’s procurer-in-chief, haunting docksides and pubs for rent-boys that his master went through like tissues Evan Morgan’s infatuations were brutally brief, usually ending with cash or a present and a warning to disappear—or else. And with Captain Ware the warning was real. Several disappeared never to be seen again.
Harry Ware and Evan Morgan negotiating terms with a spiv
the Marchesa Luisa Casati. (Neither dour or dowdy)
The Marchesa brought much more joy to the world—unless you shared Evan Morgan’s proclivities. She gate-crashed several of his house parties, and as one prone to ‘parading with a pair of leashed cheetahs and wearing live snakes as jewellery,’ she invariably made her presence known.. Not for the prudish perhaps, one contemporary referring to her as ‘that international monument of depravity.’
Rent boys or an ‘international monument of depravity’ A choice I’ve yet to encounter and perhaps never will—certainly not in Tredegar House, currently owned by the National Trust.