The Chelsea Arts Club Ball: The Outrageous New Year’s Eve Parties (1908-1958)
“The most scandalous event on the social calendar”
1926: Guests at the Chelsea Arts Ball, London, having a fancy dress party in their box. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
How good a do was the Chelsea Arts Club Ball? Answer: very. The Ball was a highlight of the social calendar, a New Year’s Eve fancy dress extravaganza. In 1926, Kenneth Hare (via Queer London) praised the outfits”variety, inventiveness, vivacity and colour.” In 1934, one observer described “groups of men dressed in coloured silk blouses and tight-hipped trousers… lips rouged and faces painted. By their attitude and general behaviour they were obviously male prostitutes.” (In the UK, gay sex was illegal until 1967 when the Sexual Offences Act decriminalised it.)
History Is Made At Night notes that the ball employed private stewards to maintain “order” and exclude “undesirables.”
March 1926: Revellers at the Chelsea Arts Ball gathered round the pylon at the Albert Hall London. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
It had all begun so simply. In November 1890, the Chelsea Arts Club.committee was formed, chaired by Stirling Lee. It was agreed that the Club should:
be bohemian in character
consist of professional architects, engravers, painters and sculptors
promote social intercourse amongst its members
advance the cause of art by means of exhibitions, life classes and other kindred means.
The Chelsea Arts Club adds:
One of the main sources of income in the early days were the Chelsea Arts Balls. ‘Quartz Arts’ Balls had been held in Paris and Rome for years, in which artists, musicians and people of the theatre celebrated ‘Mardi Gras’. The Club decided to hold a Ball in London which would rival those of Paris or Rome, and the first was held at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in 1908. It was a great success, and attracted many celebrities, socialites, and leading actors. Encouraged by their success, a larger venue was sought, and from 1910, the Chelsea Arts Balls were held in the Albert Hall.
For the next thirty years the Chelsea Arts Balls at the Albert Hall were the Bohemian centrepiece in London’s social season. Either held on Mardi Gras or New Year’s Eve, the Balls were extravagant affairs with over 100 performers, lavish decorations and up to 4,000 dancers all in fancy dress on the ‘Great Floor’ of the Albert Hall. With exotic themes such as ‘Egyptian’, ‘Noah’s Ark’, ‘Arabian Nights’ and ‘Sun Worship’, revellers would dance into the early hours until a breakfast was eventually served at 5am as an end to the festivities.
The Indy continues:
But in 1946 two artists’ models were persuaded to completely disrobe to add zest to the proceedings. In subsequent years fights broke out, leading police to park tiered vans outside so that drunken revellers could be piled on top of each other on stretchers.
Tom Cross, who has written a history of the Chelsea Arts Club, said: ‘I suppose it was the equivalent of a massive acid house party in today’s term.’
1926: Guests wearing various costumes at the Annual Chelsea Arts Ball in the Albert Hall, London. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
December 1928: A stunt group perform at the Chelsea Arts Ball. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)
December 1929: Figure of a peacock with its tail as a train which is being held by attendants at a Chelsea Arts Ball rehearsal. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)
30th December 1933: One of the giant nets full of balloons waiting to be raised to the ceiling of the Albert Hall, London where the Chelsea Arts Ball will be held tomorrow night, New Year’s Eve. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)
4th January 1933: Students from Clapham School of Art blowing up balloons for their giant glass of ‘bubbly’, which formed one of the attractions at the Chelsea Arts Ball at the Royal Albert Hall, London. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images
6th December 1934: One of three enormous figures depicting, ‘Speed’ created by Barney Seale being constructed by his assistants for the Chelsea Arts Ball at the Royal Albert Hall. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)
19th December 1935: Members of the Kensington Studios having a tea break as they prepare their costumes for the Chelsea Arts Ball. (Photo by Reg Speller/Fox Photos/Getty Images)
31st December 1937: Joanna Brandon surrounded by balloons which are to be released at midnight from the roof of the Albert Hall during the Chelsea Arts Ball. The balloons are marked with the name Dolcis, a shoe company. (Photo by A. Hudson/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
31st December 1946: Ted and Barbara Castle (1911 – 2002) at the Chelsea Arts Ball, New Years Eve 1946. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
1947: The Royal College of Art performs their tableau, ‘Dante’s Inferno’ at the Chelsea Arts Club annual New Year’s Ball at the Royal Albert Hall, London. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
circa 1954: Dancers and merrymakers at the Chelsea Arts Ball held at the Royal Albert Hall, where the theme to welcome in the New Year was fun. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)
English artist Alfred Thomson smoking a pipe as he paints a panorama of the Chelsea Arts Ball at Royal Albert Hall, circa 1950. (Photo by Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
A huge caricature of conductor Sir Malcolm Sargent floating above the crowd of New Year revellers at the Chelsea Arts Ball. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
1954: Film stars Joan Collins and Maxwell Read at Chelsea Arts Ball at the Royal Albert Hall, London. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)
The Chelsea Arts Ball on New Year’s Eve at the Albert Hall in London, 31st December 1954. The theme of the ball was ‘The Seven Seas’ and a large model of the Roman sea god Neptune hangs above the revellers. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)