Felix at the Chelsea Arts Ball

Pam’s Pictorama Photo Post: Recently I have been in the midst of chasing down the remains of a Felix postcard collection, but this one popped up on its own from a different source in the middle of it. Felix on parade could be a real sub-genre of Felix photo collecting. Unlike the photo postcards of folks posing with Felix which hail exclusively from Britain, Australia and New Zealand, the parade photos are as often from the US. While many seem to be variations on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day balloons, the best of them are from small parades elsewhere in the county. (Some of these previous examples can be found in posts here and here. Some of the photos from those posts are pictured below.) However, it has been a long time since one has come up for purchase. Hang onto your hats though folks – I think this is an interesting one.

Pams-Pictorama.com Collection.

Today’s comes to Pictorama from Great Britain and celebrates the Chelsea Arts Ball. The card was never sent. The only information printed on the back is Pathe Freres Cinema Ltd. Series Copyright. It turns out to be the 1922 edition of the ball. A bit of further research reveals that the design was overseen that year by artist Fred Leist and the theme (somewhat ironically as I write now in 2021) was Brighter London 100 years Hence. (I am thinking another worldwide pandemic was not on his mind at the time having just lived through the 1918 one.) That year the revelers danced to the Ceadon-West Orchestra, noted as a Big Band, but I cannot find many traces of them online.

Meanwhile, the Chelsea Arts Ball dates back to 1891, as far as I can tell from a brief history on the website of the club, (found here – and note the image of Felix on the side of their building in the photo!) having grown out of a tradition of fancy dress parties in the studios of artists in the 1880’s. It was meant to rival the already established Arts Club of Mayfair. (A side note that women were not admitted for membership in the Chelsea Arts Club until 1968!) The balls typically seemed to take place over New Year’s and/or Mardi Gras and eventually settled in at the Royal Albert Hall as a venue for a decades long run until the 1958 one was so raucous (Wikipedia sites, rowdiness, nudity and public homosexuality – which was illegal at the time – as what caused the ousting) that the ball was banned from the venue for the next 30 years. If I understand correctly, I believe that the party tradition continued until December of 2020 when, for Covid reasons, it was banned. The parties have been held at the site of the club at 143 Church Street in recent years.

Pams-Pictorama.com Collection.

The hope had been to rival the French equivalent, the Bal des Quat’s’Arts established in 1892, I gather a similar soiree produced by architecture students there. They achieved their goal and the Chelsea Arts Ball grew to be extravagant affairs with a hundred performers, lavish decor and thousands of participants who partied until dawn when breakfast was served. It was, according the the Chelsea Arts Club website, the centerpiece of London society. I will also credit them with providing the quote, The mere mention of the Chelsea Arts Ball would make the debutante blush and the dowager blench. Lady Muriel Beckwith, 1936. It leaves me with questions about the participants – had the ball left its roots among artists and become a fête only of the wealthy? Or was it an event that embraced both, high and low brow so to speak?

Felix stereocard. Pams-Pictorama.com Collection.

Each ball was punctuated by a parade at midnight – presumably we are seeing some sort of a dry run here with a photo taken during a misty day and used for promotional purposes. There is no real indication, London weather being what it is, if this was a Mardi Gras or New Year’s version. While seemed to me that it is a New Year’s version, no hint of spring in this photo, research shows that this ball was held on February 8 of 1922 – still very cold, and a bit early for Mardi Gras. Very chilly for those short dresses! Somehow the gray mistiness of it adds to the appeal and creates the right atmosphere in this photo.

Pams-Pictorama.com Collection.

And oh what a photo is it is! A giant paper-mâché Felix with a distinctly worried look (hands behind his back in the Felix Thinking Position) hovers over this bevy of women in short white dresses – it is hard to see their masks but I believe they are little birds; I think I see beaks! They are cute little white fluffy skirts however, with ruffles and a bow. As noted, they are not warmly dressed. The dancers are being herded by Felix costume clad men. These gents are also in charge of Felix’s movement and he is balanced (precariously?) on a sort of dolly. Felix appears to have three of these escorts. A few folks are onlookers, as they are largely men and hard to see them clearly.

The real scoop here is that film exists of the pre-ball parade shown on this card. It can be found on the British Pathe website. However a superior and decidedly longer version exists on Youtube and can be found here or below. This one goes on to show the assembled costumed performers and even some of the individual wild costumes that could be found. The Felix men and white dressed women join hands and dance around Felix in a delightful fashion!

An interesting and somewhat moving account of the party given to celebrate the end of WWI, also found on the Chelsea Arts Club site, describes it as the most famous one, held on March 12, 1919. It used the concept of Dazzle, the Navy camouflage process which owed its roots to Cubism and Vorticists. (Okay, I had to look that up – Vorticistism was a brief industrial influenced abstract art movement of the pre-War teens in Britain – one of my facts for the day!) Dazzle is described as a visible expression of jazz syncopation. Here they were in 1922, a few short years later, wondering what the next hundred years would bring.

Another photo related to the ball, from the Royal Albert Hall website.

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