"The Fancy Ball", 1837: the tableaux vivants


So turns my memory to that brilliant sight
When wit and beauty held their festal night;
When the thronged hall its glittering groups displayed
Of Nature’s loveliness, by art arrayed;
Of graceful forms that mocked the sculptor’s art,
And eyes whose glances reached the coldest heart,
Of all that beauty loves or taste admires,
Of all that valor warms or genius fires.

While ideas for tableaux vivants, the "living pictures" that often opened a ball in the nineteenth century (or interrupted it, as at this ball in Heidelberg in the 1840s) are easy to come by, it's rare to find a detailed description of a whole series of them at a ball.  The poem "The Fancy Ball", from which the above lines are excerpted, devotes over half its length to poetic descriptions of the tableaux vivants performed at a ball held in Savannah, Georgia, in 1837, three of which are easily identifiable scenes from the works of Lord Byron or Sir Walter Scott.  I haven't been able to identify the other scenes, but hope to figure them out eventually.

The poem was written by Henry Bowen Anthony, a Rhode Island politician who spent some time working in Savannah as a young man.  During that time, he attended a fancy dress ball held in mid-March of 1837 by Godfrey and Julia Barnsley at Scarborough House, Julia's family home, now in the possession of her and her husband.  The ball was an extravagant one, and is quite well-documented.  It certainly made an impression on Anthony!

After returning from Savannah, Anthony became a newspaper editor and eventually entered politics, serving as a U. S. Senator from Rhode Island for twenty-five years and dying in office.

"The Fancy Ball" was written when Anthony was only twenty-two and was privately published at the time.  It was reprinted, unrevised, in an edition of only one hundred copies in 1875...[tableaux vivants behind the cut!

A Ballroom Basilisk, 1897


I'm just going to leave this story here without any commentary.

Happy Halloween!




BY G. L. Calderon

Reginald passed his hand wearily over his aching brow, and glided languishing between the purple portières.  Within was a chaos of whirling muslin and hungry faces swimming on a sea of passionate, throbbing music.  There was a mist before his eyes; grinning heads floated restlessly by, gibbering in the shell-like ears of painted women.  Amid the fevered maelstrom, one figure loomed large and close upon his attention.  It was the hostess.  A hot wet hand pressed his.  “Law! what a squash!” he murmured in her ear, then plunged into the stream, and was borne away to the other side of the room...[it gets better, or worse, behind the cut!]