Archibald Philip Primrose,
5th Earl of Rosebery (1847-1929),
"a Gentleman of the 18th Century"

Owner of enormous amounts of land and two fortunes - one from his father and one from his wife Hannah de Rothschild who had died in 1890 - Rosebery exploited to the opportunities afforded him by his class and wealth, becoming Prime Minister in 1894-5. An eloquent speaker and intellectual politician, he was also a great imperialist (“God forbid, there is no need for any nation, however great, leaving the Empire”). However, by 1897, he had bought a villa near Naples and planned to retire from politics – an ambition which was not realised.

Although Rosebery himself stated that he went to the Ball as a gentleman of the 18th century, he was widely reported in the press to be in costume as the English author Horace Walpole (1717-1797) best remembered for his thousands of letters, or, as one newspaper explained: “He preferred to emphasize his literary aspirations by appearing as Horace Walpole”

Rosebery’s name had been mentioned in the courts in 1895 during the trial of Oscar Wilde for homosexuality and he was appalled by the newspapers’ mistake over the identity of his character: ”I was described greatly to my disgust as that effeminate gossip Horace Walpole.” If challenged for a name I should have given ‘the Duke of Devonshire of that time!’ But I had no idea of anybody.“

Rosebery’s costume was made, and most probably also chosen, by Monsieur Alias of Soho Square, London, who had clothed him “with perfect precision” as a courtier of George III’s time (reigned 1760-1820) complete with powdered wig. The stolid widower must have been even more appalled to read in the press that he wore almost £500 worth of diamond buttons in his green perfect coat and of the delicate silver embroideries on his dark green velvet coat and his black high-heeled shoes with scarlet heels and silver buckles. The Order of the Garter can also be seen on his left knee.

No photograph exists of Rosebery on the night of the Ball. This image was made on 20 August possibly at Rosebery’s London residence in Berkeley Square which abutted the gardens of Devonshire House. The patrician interior background is a backdrop.


Click on image to enlarge
copyright V&A. Lady Ashburton 1897V&A Lafayette Archive
Negative number: L1535


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All text copyright © Russell Harris 2011