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Lafayette L1495
Neg. Date:
copyright V&A


Major George Corwallis-West (1874-1951)

Major George Frederick Myddelton Corwallis-West (1874–1951), known among the family as “Buzzie” is seen photographed as a black slave in the entourage of Queen Sheba, a role played by his sister Princess Daisy of Pless at the Devonshire House Fancy Dress Ball. The Ball, organised by the Duchess of Devonshire, was one of the events held to mark the Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in July 1897.

George was, according to Daisy’s published diary, “endowed with his full share of the family good looks, and… women have never been shy of showing that they thought so.” However, with his handsome features subsumed by black grease paint, George confessed he found it humiliating to be “blacked up”, sidelined as a slave and wearing a costume which he described disparagingly as a “multi-coloured quilt.” He stayed at the party just long enough to participate with the widowed Lady Randolph Church in the “Oriental Procession,” along with his sister Daisy in costume as the Queen of Sheba.

At the first appropriate moment, George left the ball. He must have been galled to read the appallingly racist epithet used by The Times to describe his black-face character, whereas Lady Randolph Churchill noticed much more delicately that “‘the Princess of Pless was surrounded by a retinue in oriental garb, some of whom had so far sacrificed their appearance as to darken their faces.”

Three years later George married Lady Randolph Churchill, who had pursued him as a suitor even when he went off to South Africa to fight in the Boer War. Their marriage took place much against the advice of George’s godfather, the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII) who deemed it an “utterly ridiculous” match considering the twenty year age difference. Daisy, in her diary, refrained from commenting on the relationship except to state: George is exactly the same age as Lady Randolph’s eldest son Winston.” Other’s were more generous, and Baroness de Stoeckl, a Russian courtier and keen observer all the European aristocratic scene, noted of Jennie: ‘She was witty, alive, and in love with young George West.’

Many others might have seen this match as an allegedly illegitimate son of the Prince of Wales marrying one of the latter’s ex-mistresses (both George’s mother Patsy and Jennie, Lady Randolph Churchill were reputedly lovers of the Prince). Jennie’s family looked down upon the marriage and George’s mother Patsy realised that her son’s marriage to Jennie would most likely provide no heir to the Cornwallis-West estates. “I remember my feeling of intense regret at none of my family being present when I married,’ George wrote of his wedding to Jennie. Once married George found himself inexorably drawn into the Prince of Wales’s inner set of friends, where Jennie ruled as its “life and soul”.

This lifestyle was an extravagance he could ill afford, and after a desperate attempt to raise money in the City, he was declared bankrupt in 1916. By then he had divorced Jennie and married in 1914 the famous actress, Mrs Patrick Campbell, who herself was the subject of a great passion by George Bernard Shaw.

In 1920 George had to sell the family estates, Ruthin Castle and Newlands, to pay off his debts. His once well-married but now divorced sisters Daisy, Princess of Pless and Constance, Duchess of Westminster, could not help him out, as both were also struggling financially. As with many of his impoverished aristocratic peers, George was forced to earn a living by writing his reminiscences of the by-gone Edwardian era and also a very popular book about his favourite pastime, entitled Edwardians Go Fishing.

His marriage to Mrs Patrick Campbell lasted, mostly in name only, until her death in 1940, at which point he remarried. In old age, rather than undergo the later stages of Parkinson’s disease, he shot himself.

This photograph was made on the night of the Ball (2–3 July 1897) in the gardens of Devonshire House in London. In order to commemorate the great costume ball, the firm of Lafayette was invited by the Duchess of Devonshire to set up their photographic equipment in a tent in the gardens.

Photographing the guests in costume during the ball would have been a formidable commission for James Stack Lauder, the owner of the firm, and evidence from the extant negatives shows that he had transported from the Bond Street studio a variety of backdrops and props in order to carry out the commission as professionally as in a studio.