Today is the birthday (1778) of George Bryan “Beau” Brummell an iconic figure in Regency England, the arbiter of men’s fashion, and a friend of the Prince Regent, the future King George IV. He established a mode of dress for men that rejected overly ornate fashions for one of understated, but perfectly fitted and tailored garments. This look was based on dark coats, full-length trousers rather than knee breeches and stockings, and, above all, immaculate shirt linen and an elaborately knotted cravat. Brummell is credited with introducing, and establishing as fashion, the forerunner of the modern men’s suit, worn with a tie. He claimed he took five hours a day to dress, and recommended that boots be polished with champagne. His general lifestyle became known as “dandyism.”
Brummell was born in London, the younger son of William Brummell, a politician, of Donnington Grove in Berkshire. The family was middle class, but the elder Brummell was ambitious for his son to become a gentleman, and young George was raised with that understanding. Brummell was educated at Eton and made his precocious mark on fashion there when he not only modernized the white stock, or cravat, that was the mark of the Eton boy, but added a gold buckle to it. He went from Eton to Oxford University, where, by his own example, he made cotton stockings and dingy cravats a thing of the past. While an undergraduate at Oriel College in 1793, he competed for the Chancellor’s Prize for Latin Verse, coming second to Edward Copleston, who was later to become provost of his college. He left the university after only a year at the age of sixteen.
In June 1794 Brummell joined the illustrious Tenth Royal Hussars as a cornet, or lowest rank of commissioned officer, and soon after had his nose broken by a kick from a horse. His father died in 1795, by which time George had been promoted to lieutenant. His father had left an inheritance of £65,000, of which Brummell was entitled to a third. Although under normal circumstances this would be a substantial sum, it was inadequate for the expenses of an aspiring officer in the personal regiment of the Prince of Wales. The officers, many of whom would be inheriting noble titles and lands “wore their estates upon their backs – some of them before they had inherited the paternal acres.” Officers in any cavalry regiment were required to provide their own mounts and uniforms and be responsible for mess bills, but the 10th in particular had elaborate and almost unending variations of uniform. In addition, their mess expenses were enormous as the regiment did not stint itself on either banquets or entertainment.
Although a junior officer, Brummell took the regiment by storm, fascinating the prince by the force of his personality. He was allowed to miss parade, shirk his duties, and in essence, do exactly as he pleased. Within three years, by 1796, he was made a captain, to the combined envy and disgust of the older officers, who felt that: “our general’s friend was now the general.” When his regiment was sent from London to Manchester he immediately resigned his commission, citing the city’s poor reputation, lack of atmosphere, and an absence of culture and civility.
Although he was now a civilian, Brummell’s friendship with, and influence over, the Prince continued. His simple yet elegant and understated manner of dress, coupled with his natural wit, gained him entry to the Regent’s royal society. The life and the daily routine of most aristocratic men of the time included making one’s toilette and shopping in the morning; riding in Hyde Park or making the round of gentlemen’s clubs in the afternoon; followed by the theater, gambling at Almack’s or a private party, or visiting the brothels in the evening. He took a house on Chesterfield Street in Mayfair and for a time managed to avoid the nightly gaming and other extravagances needed to move in such elevated circles. Where he refused to economize was on his dress: When asked how much it would cost to keep a single man in clothes, he was said to have replied: “Why, with tolerable economy, I think it might be done with £800.” That amount is approximately £103,000 ($173,000) in today’s currency; the average wage for a craftsman at that time was £1 a week.
Brummell put into practice the principles of harmony of shape and contrast of colors with such a pleasing result that men of superior rank sought his professional opinion on their dress. The Duke of Bedford once did this concerning a coat. Brummell examined his Grace with his accustomed cool impertinence, turned him about, scanned him with scrutinizing, contemptuous eye, and then taking the lapel between his dainty finger and thumb, he exclaimed in a tone of pitying wonder, “Bedford do you call this thing a coat?”
His personal habits, such as a fastidious attention to cleaning his teeth, shaving, and daily bathing exerted an influence on the upper echelons of polite society, who began to do likewise. Previously people bathed only a few times per year, and used heavy colognes and perfumes to hide body odors. He also insisted upon freshly laundered shirts and linens. Enthralled, the Prince would spend hours in Brummell’s dressing room, witnessing the progress of his friend’s lengthy morning toilette.
Unfortunately, Brummell’s wealthy friends had a less than commendable influence on him. He soon began spending and gambling as though his fortunes were as extensive as theirs. Such liberal outlay began to deplete his capital rapidly, and he found it increasingly difficult to maintain his prestige, although he could still float a line of credit on account of his connexions. This changed on July 1813 at a masquerade ball at Watier’s private club, when Brummell, who was one of the hosts, openly antagonized the Prince Regent, thereby forcing society to choose between them.
Brummell, Lord Alvanley, Henry Mildmay and Henry Pierrepoint were considered the prime movers of Watier’s, dubbed “the Dandy Club” by Byron. All four were hosts at a ball where the Prince Regent greeted Alvanley and Pierrepoint but then “cut” Brummell and Mildmay by staring them in the face without speaking to them. This provoked Brummell’s most famous remark, “Alvanley, who’s your fat friend?” The incident, finalizing the long-developing rift between them, is generally dated to 1811, the year the Prince became Regent and began abandoning all his old Whig friends. Normally, the loss of royal favor was doom, but Brummell ran as much on the approval and friendship of other rulers of the several fashion circles. He became the anomaly of a society favorite flourishing without a patron, still in charge of fashion and courted by large segments of society.
In 1816 Brummell fled to France to escape debtor’s prison, owing thousands of pounds. Usually Brummell’s gambling obligations, as “debts of honor,” were paid immediately. The one exception to this was the final wager, dated March 1815 in White’s betting book, which was marked “not paid, 20th January, 1816”
He lived the remainder of his life in French exile, spending ten years in Calais without an official passport before acquiring an appointment to the consulate at Caen via the influence of Lord Alvanley and the Marquess of Worcester, only in the reign of William IV. This provided him with a small annuity. This appointment lasted for two years before Brummell recommended that the Foreign Office abolish the consulate at Caen in the hope of being moved to a more profitable position elsewhere. The consulate was abolished but no new position was granted. Brummell rapidly ran out of money and was forced into debtors’ prison by his creditors. It was only after the charitable intervention of his friends in England that he was able to secure release. Brummell died penniless and mentally impaired from syphilis at Le Bon Sauveur Asylum on the outskirts of Caen in 1840 (sadly, I note, on my birthday).
In literature, Brummell left a mark. Scarcely had he left England than a collection of witticisms ascribed to him and of anecdotes about him appeared under the title “Brummelliana” and was republished many times in the following decades. This began with the notorious story of his enquiring the identity of his companion’s ‘fat friend.’ William Hazlitt borrowed the same title of “Brummelliana” for an unsympathetic essay published in 1828, referring to some of these stories and repeating others uncollected there. Dandyism also came under attack in George Robert Wythen Baxter’s satirical essay “Kiddyism,” published in humorous journals from 1832 onwards, which culminates in a set of satirical aphorisms purporting to be yet more “Brummelliana”.
Further fictitious aphorisms were published in France by Honoré de Balzac in the course of a series of articles published under the title “Traité de la vie élégante” (1830). These sayings were supposed to have arisen during an interview with Brummell in Bologna, rather than Calais, and epitomize his view of ‘the elegant life’. In the following decade two more books were dedicated to confirming Brummell as a cult figure. In England there was Captain Jesse’s two volume Life of George Brummell (1844), the first biography devoted to him. In France there was the influential essay of Barbey d’Aurevilly, “Du dandysme et de George Brummell” (1845), which seeks to define the essence of dandyism through a study of his career and opinions.
Brummell was to appear as a character in Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1896 historical novel Rodney Stone. In this, the title character’s uncle, Charles Tregellis, is the center of the London fashion world, until Brummell ultimately supplants him. Tregellis’s subsequent death from mortification serves as a deus ex machina in that it resolves Rodney Stone’s family poverty.
In the United States, Brummell’s life was dramatized in an 1890 stage play in four acts by Clyde Fitch with Richard Mansfield as the ‘Beau’. This in turn was adapted for the 1924 silent movie with John Barrymore and Mary Astor. Another play about him, authored by Bertram P Matthews, is only remembered because it had incidental music written for it by Edward Elgar. It was staged at the Theatre Royal, Birmingham in November 1928, with Elgar himself conducting the orchestra on its first night. Only the minuet from this is now performed. Brummell’s later years were the setting for Ron Hutchinson’s 2001 two-handed play The Beau (originally Beau Brummell), which following a UK national tour played for one month at Theatre Royal Haymarket, starring Peter Bowles as Brummell.
Earlier films included a 10-minute movie by the Vitagraph Company of America (1913), based on a Booth Tarkington story, and the 1913 “Beau Brummell and his Bride,” a short comedy made by the Edison Company. Brummell’s life was also made the subject of a 1931 three-act operetta by Reynaldo Hahn, later broadcast by Radio-Lille (1963). In 1937 there was a radio drama on Lux Radio Theater with Robert Montgomery as Brummell. Another film, “Beau Brummell,” was made in 1954 with Stewart Granger playing the title role and Elizabeth Taylor as Lady Patricia Belham. There were also two television dramas: the sixty-minute “So war Herr Brummell” (Süddeutscher Rundfunk, 1967) and the UK “Beau Brummell: This Charming Man” (2006).
Georgette Heyer, author of a number of Regency romance novels, included Brummell as a character in her 1935 novel Regency Buck. He is also referred to, or figures as a minor character, in the work of later writers of this genre. More recently, Brummell was made the detective-hero of a series of period mysteries by Californian novelist Rosemary Stevens, starting with Death on a Silver Tray in 2000. These are written as if related by their hero. Another American reinterpretation of his character appears in Cecilia Ryan’s homoerotic novella The Sartorialist (2012).
Brummell’s name became associated with style and good looks and was therefore borrowed for a variety of products or alluded to in songs and poetry. One example was the paint color Beau Brummel Brown, used exclusively on the 1931 Oldsmobile. In 1934 a rhododendron hybridized by Lionel de Rothschild was named after the dandy. Then during the 1940s and 1950s watchmaker LeCoultre marketed a Beau Brummel watch with a minimalist design and no numbers.
T. S. Eliot’s poem about “Bustopher Jones: The Cat About Town” refers to him as the “Brummell of Cats,” an allusion taken up in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, the 1981 musical based on Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939). Around that time other allusions to Brummell appeared in pop and rock lyrics, such as Billy Joel’s 1980 hit, “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” but the name had already been adopted by rock bands in the 1960s: the faux-British Invasion band The Beau Brummels, and Beau Brummell Esquire and His Noble Men, the name used by South African born Michael Bush for his English rock group.
“Fashions come and go; bad taste is timeless.” — Beau Brummel
Hannah Glasse’s 1747 volume The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy is the classic Georgian cookbook. I note that she appears to be the first cookbook author to include a recipe for “something in a hole” – now usually toad in a hole (sausages baked in an egg batter). I have already dealt with Isabella Beeton’s kidneys in a hole and mutton in a hole (St George, 23 April 2014). Glasse’s recipe is for pigeons in a hole.
A lady at dinner, observing that Brummel did not take any vegetables, asked him whether such was his general habit, and if he never ate any. He replied, “Yes, madam, I once ate a pea.” Brummell was once asked why a matrimonial prospect had failed. “Why what could I do, my good fellow, but cut the connexion? I discovered that Lady Mary actually ate cabbage!” So, I won’t give you a recipe with vegetables.
Here is a recipe for ragout of oysters. I don’t think you need a modern interpretation. You just need to know that “?” is not an “f” as many people now mistakenly believe, but the so-called “long s” – it has no cross bar. It was eventually replaced by the short “s” in typography (originally used only as a final), to avoid the confusion especially in blotchy printing. Raspings are toasted breadcrumbs.
A ragoo of oy?ters
OPEN twenty large oy?ters, take them out of their liquor, ?ave the liquor, and dip the oy?ters in a batter made thus : take two eggs, beat them well, a little lemon-peel grated, a little nutmeg grated, a blade of mace pounded fine, a little par?ley chopped fine ; beat all together with a little flour, have ready ?ome butter or dripping in a ?tew-pan ; when it boils, dip in your oy?ters, one by one, into the batter, and fry them of a fine brown ; then with an egg-?lice take them out, and lay them in a di?h before the fire. Pour the fat out of the pan, and ?hake a little flour over the bottom of the pan, then rub a little piece of butter, as big as a ?mall wallnut, all over with your knife, whil?t it is over the fire; then pour in three ?poonfuls of the oy?ter liquor ?trained, one ?poonful of white wine, and a quarter of a pint of gravy ; grate a little nutmeg, ?tir all together, throw in the oy?ters, give the pan a to?s round, and when the ?auce is of a good thickne?s; pour all into the di?h, and garni?h with raspings.