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Lafayette L1468a
Neg. Date: 17-07-1897

copyright V&A

Lady Randolph Churchill, née Jennie Jerome (1854-1921)

By 1897 Lady Randolph was already a widow and it was said that she had been a mistress of Edward, Prince of Wales. Her discretion about this affair was summed up in her own memoirs: “…there may be some to whom these Reminiscences will be interesting chiefly in virtue of what is left unsaid.”

For the Devonshire House Ball she chose to represent the famously beautiful 6th century Theodora, who had risen, according to the Greek author Procopius, from dancing girl on the game to Byzantine Empress. Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire quotes Procopius in describing one of her lewd practises which involved barley grains, servants and geese.

The story re-entered the popular imagination with Victorien Sardou’s play Theodora – a role created by Sarah Bernhardt in 1884 in a majestically lavish production at the Port St. Martin Theatre in Paris.

The costume which Lady Randolph wore to the Ball (and which she wore to other costume balls as late as 1911), although doubtless inspired by Bernhardt’s success, was designed by the orientalist painter JJ Benjamin-Constant and executed by JP Worth of Paris. The effect of the costume was stunning:

“Rows of pearls crowned her head. A hoop of pearls encircled her forehead. Strings of pearls, three large and perhaps a dozen small ones, covered her neck. Two giant pearls, one black and one white, hung from them. Another enormous pearl-string around the shoulders reached her waist. The famous Marlborough jewels had been lent her for this night..

Her trailing silk dress was richly embroidered with golden Byzantine patterns indicating mysterious signs and symbols. From her crown of pearls hung a fluttering veil of that material the Greeks used to call woven air. In her right hand she carried the Imperial Orb of the East-Roman Empire (the genuine article, borrowed from the British Museum), which prevented her dancing.”

Lady Randolph holds the Empress Theodora’s favourite flower – the white lily, and her hair was not dressed as usual but let down to stream over shoulders, something which in Victorian times could either indicate an unmarried state or female licentiousness. Newspaper reports described her under-dress as being made of “Eastern fabric,” with draperies from the neck of green and mauve. The hem of the costume has hand-painted angels set in a circle of velvet with beads and gold ruche – a motif which Worth had used in 1891 on the famous “Lohengrin Cloak” commissioned by Dame Nellie Melba and worn in performance before the Tsar and Tsarina in Russia.

It was at the ball that Lady Randolph first met her second husband – Daisy’s brother George in his unhappy choice of costume. Lady Randolph fell very strongly for George and made no effort to keep secret her feelings at a time when such a relationship would have been looked upon with disapproval from many quarters. Some time after the Ball, while visiting Grand Duke Michael, the wife of the grand duke’s equerry noted of Lady Randolph: “She was a beautiful woman and played the piano divinely. She was witty, alive, and in love with young George West.”

This image was made in the Lafayette studio two weeks after the ball.