Rachel, Countess of Dudley,
as Queen Esther
Born into an impoverished family of Norfolk bankers, Rachel Gurney married the 2nd Earl of Dudley in 1891 in the presence of Edward, Prince of Wales, who was an intimate friend of the groom's mother. After the marriage, the Earl, under the influence of his idealistic wife, "surprised his friends by the energy with which he began to attack his public duties."
Passionately interested in later life in improving the lot of the poor, she instituted a system of district nurses both in Ireland, where the Earl was viceroy, and in Australia where he was governor general.
The Earl and Countess were immortalized in James Joyce's Ulysses, and the Countess of Dudley's Polo challenge cup in Australia is still contested in New South Wales ninety years later.
The Countess died in Ireland, in June 1920, from a heart attack while swimming, watched helplessly by her maid on the shore.
For the Ball, the Countess chose to personify Queen Esther of biblical myth, who, unlike many of the other characters at the Ball, was admired by history for her courage and virtue. Esther, who saved the Jews of Persia, was a popular subject of paintings by the Dutch, French and Italian masters of 16th and 17th centuries, but the Countess's costume appears to be one of her own creation.
Appropriately, she wears a "Persian dress" of white crepe, thickly embroidered in real dull gold. The skirt was bordered with three lines of green embroidery, studded with amethysts, turquoises, and pearls and a chasuble of solid gold tissue, encrusted with jewels, falls from the shoulders to the hem of the skirt. The same variety of jewels is also set in her gold armlets and bracelets. Her headdress consists of white and purple veils both embroidered with gold and set with a crown of gold, encrusted with precious stones. 15 large drop pearls hang over her forehead and her neck is almost completely hidden by rows of the famous Dudley pearls.
This image, with its background "washed out" is undated but the version published in the Album shows the Roman revival backdrop used in the Princess of Pless portraits and was most probably also made in December 1897.
Negative number: V&A L1469, Undated