Book Review: The Perfect Summer by Juliet Nicolson

Michael Hanson

It was 1911: a summer of almost uninterrupted sunshine, one of the hottest of the 20th century, and all previous records were broken when the temperature hit 100F in the shade on 10 August. The perfect summer – but for whom? Juliet Nicolson, elder daughter of the Trust’s late patron Nigel Nicolson, poses this question in what is, surprisingly, her first book, but hopefully not her last. Her meticulous research, her gimlet eye for unusual details and her breakneck readability deservedly made this BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week in the very week when the temperature allegedly hit 100F on 19 July (though it was actually 97.3F).

The subtitle of her book, Dancing into Shadow in 1911, is the answer. The skies were not entirely cloudless: an unprecedented number of workers went on strike in 1911, poverty was widespread, infant mortality was rampant and a whole generation of carefree young men could not see the First World War looming on the horizon. Militant suffragettes may have refrained from spoiling George V’s coronation on 22 June, but it rained that day.

It was a perfect summer for Lutyens, however. Though this is not the main thrust of the book, it is a golden thread that runs through it, which is why the book will delight members of the Lutyens Trust. Not only was he working on Castle Drogo, the British School at Rome, the Rand Regiments Memorial in Johannesburg (and the art gallery in that city), the Theosophical Society’s new headquarters in London (now the British Medical Association’s head offices), and country houses such as The Salutation at Sandwich, Great Maytham and Great Dixter among other projects in 1911, but he also found time to transform the Royal Albert Hall for the Shakespeare Costume Ball on 20 June.

This magnificent event, where 600 members of the upper classes danced from 11pm to 5.30 the following morning (the day before the coronation), dressed in costumes based on their own choice of Shakespearean character, was the brainwave of Jennie Cornwallis-West, the American-born beauty Jennie Jerome whose marriage to Lord Randolph Churchill had resulted in her being the mother of Winston Churchill (who in 1911 was Home Secretary in Herbert Asquith’s Liberal government). Now Jennie was tiring of her second husband, George Cornwallis-West, and would divorce him in 1914.

Jennie had launched an appeal to raise money to build a National Theatre (for a site in Bloomsbury bought in 1913, not the site opposite the V & A for which Lutyens made designs in 1937) and hoped that the Shakespeare Costume Ball would raise more that £10,000 towards this. Dressed as Olivia from Twelfth Night, she surveyed Lutyens’s handiwork that had created an Italianate garden under a blue sky that completely covered the dark red-brick Victorian roof of the Royal Albert Hall. The lower tiers of boxes had become clipped yew hedges with topiary birds, over which grapevines tumbled. Cypress trees were placed around the hall in planters and the top galleries were turned into marble terraces.

The Shakespeare Costume Ball should not be confused with Shakespeare’s England exhibition at Earls Court in 1912 (which Lutyens also designed) or the Coronation Ball at the Royal Albert Hall in 1937 (which Lutyens also designed). The 1911 Ball, which everyone agreed was a great success, was attended by many of Lutyens’s clients, some of whom can be seen in costume in Jane Brown’s book Lutyens and the Edwardians. Juliet Nicolson has a photo of a different costume ball at the Savoy on 17 May 1911, which Lutyens did not design. As far as I know, no photos or drawings of Lutyens’s designs for the Shakespeare Costume Ball survive. Those in the RIBA Drawings Collection at the V & A are of the 1937 Ball.

Michael Hanson