Chéruit – Unfinished BusinessNovember 1, 2012 Fashion
When I mentioned our Chéruit dress aeons ago, I promised I would explain how it came into our collection. This has been preying on my mind for far too long, partly because, as you will see, things are a little complicated. Here is my attempt to cut a long story short and try to make sense of something that I am not sure I wholly understand myself at this point. You might want to get yourself a cup of tea …
Our Chéruit gown was part of a large group of womenswear covering the years between 1900 and 1930ish that was donated in December 1942 by The Hon. Mrs Gilmour. According to a note in our register, all of the objects ‘were formerly in the possession of Lady Charles Montagu (formerly Viscountess Chelsea & later Lady [Henry] Meux). Some of them may have been worn by the Duchess of Marlborough & others by Admiral Sir Henry Meux’s first wife.’
I you have kept count you will have noticed that four different women are mentioned in this short paragraph, one of whom seems to have had three different names (husbands). Disentangling this genealogical bundle was a bit more difficult than expected but I persisted. Chéruit dresses are difficult to come by and I was intrigued to find one chez nous.
Let’s start with the person who seems to be our main protagonist / prime suspect: the former Viscountess Chelsea (below). Born in 1869, Mildred Cecilia Harriet was the daughter of Henry Sturt, 1st Baron Alington and his first wife Lady Augusta Bingham. In 1892 Mildred, as we shall call her from now on, married Henry Arthur Cadogan, Viscount Chelsea (b. 1868). The couple had five daughters followed by a male heir in 1903, who sadly died only seven years later. Mildred’s fifth daughter, Victoria Laura Cadogan (1901-1991) married Lieutenant-Colonel Sir John Little Gilmour of Craigmillar, 2nd Baronet in 1922 (they divorced in 1929). Victoria is very likely The Hon. Mrs Gilmour who donated the group of objects, four months after her mother’s death.
This all seems relatively straightforward but how do the Marlboroughs come into the story and who is Sir Henry Meux’s first wife? The husband of our main protagonist, Viscount Chelsea, died on 2 July 1908 at the age of only 40. Two years later, on 18 April 1910, Mildred married Sir Hedworth Lambton (b. 1856), ‘quietly’, as befitted a widow. According to The Times (19 April 1910, page 13) the bride wore ‘a costume of pale blue satin charmeuse, the bodice trimmed with cream lace net and having a yoke of fine cream’, accessorised with a large straw hat adorned with a ‘long pale blue ostrich feather’. We also learn that ‘her ornaments included a necklace of pearls’ (I love the idea of having ‘ornaments’!).
If you have been keeping up, you will have wondered why there is no mention of a ‘Hedworth Lambton’ in our register note. This is where it will start to sound as if I am making things up. In 1899 Lambton, a naval comander, met Valerie Lady Meux (b. 1847) – pronounced ‘Mews’ – the famous subject of three portraits by Whistler (one of which below).
Lady Meux was so impressed by the ‘hero of Ladysmith’ that she made Lambton heir to the large fortune left by her late husband Sir Henry Bruce Meux (d. 1900) on the condition that Lambton should adopt her name (Meux, not Valerie). When Lady Meux died on 20 September 1910 (six months after Lambton and Mildred’s wedding), the couple duly obliged. I suspect the person writing ‘Admiral Sir Henry Meux’s first wife’ in the museum register thought the ‘real’ Henry Meux and Admiral Hedworth Lambton – aka Meux – were one and the same and I don’t blame them.
Valerie certainly knew a thing or two about presentation but I find it hard to believe that Mildred would have kept the clothes of her husband’s benefactor. Stylistically the Chéruit gown fits into the period just before the First World War, but even if it had been made before Valerie’s death in 1910, the gown does not strike me as having been worn by someone in her sixties.
Hedworth Meux died in September 1929 and Mildred became a widow for the second time. A little more than year later, she remarried. Despite the fact that the groom, Lord Charles William Augustus Montagu (b. 1860) had just turned 70, it was his first marriage. Lord Charles and Mildred had been photographed together more than 30 years earlier at the famous Devonshire House Ball in 1897. In real life a stockbroker and partner of Montagu, Stanley & Co., Lord Charles, fittingly, attended as Charles I while Lady Chelsea, looking incredibly youthful despite already having had her first three daughters, apparently impersonated an Italian flower girl. Interesting, non? Lord Charles died in 1939, followed by Mildred three years later.
Now we just have to figure out the connection to ‘a’ Duchess of Marlborough. In 1920 Mildred’s fourth daughter (and the donor’s sister), The Hon. Alexandra Mary Hilda Cadogan married Charles Spencer-Churchill, Marquess of Blandford, who became the 10th Duke of Marlborough in 1934. Alexandra was born in 1910 and would have been too young to wear the Chéruit dress herself. Maybe the register note referred to a previous Duchess of Marlborough? But which one?
Charles Spencer-Churchill’s mother was arguably the most famous of the ‘dollar princesses’, the name given to the rich American heiresses marrying British aristocrats in the late 19th/early 20th century. Consuelo Vanderbilt (1877-1964) became the wife of the 9th Duke of Marlborough in late 1895 but the couple separated in 1906 and divorced in 1921. According to her autobiography The Glitter & the Gold, first published in 1953, Consuelo began to go to Paris at least once a year in the late 1880s. She frequently bought clothes in the French capital, usually at Worth’s. Her dresses seem to have been picked first by her mother, then by her husband, and Consuelo was not entirely happy with their choices. Maybe she turned to another couturier once she could?
Madeleine Chéruit (immediately above) and Consuelo were both drawn by Paul César Helleu (1859-1927), but so were many other beautiful women, including the Duke of Marlborough’s second wife, Gladys Deacon (1881-1977), yet another contender for original ownership of the gown. Both Consuelo and Gladys (below) were also painted by Giovanni Boldini, another connoisseur of picturesque female beauty.
If you have not fallen asleep, you will be aware that we are now left with three realistic options for original owner/wearer of our Chéruit dress. First up is Mildred (still a bit of a known unknown) who was in her early 40s in 1910-12, the likely date of the gown. Consuelo was in her mid 30s and although she had ceased to be the Duchess of Marlborough when the register note was written, by now any confusion in the mind of the note’s writer can be excused. Thirdly we should consider the second Duchess of Marlborough, Gladys Deacon, according to one connoisseur, once ‘the world’s most beautiful woman in the world’. Separated from the Duke in 1931, she might have left the dress behind when abandoning Blenheim Palace, the Marlborough’s ancestral seat, after the Duke’s death in 1934.
Will we ever know? Well … we might …. There are some other avenues of investigation I have not yet fully explored. The Times online archive has to be raided more systematically than I have done so far. I need to read Hugo Vickers’ biography of Gladys Deacon. And there might be a photo, drawing, painting somewhere showing one of the women – or someone I have not even thought of – in the Chéruit dress.
This turned out to be quite an unhappy tale, full of separations and loss. I am probably reading too much into it, but it seems fitting that the embellishments on our gown are not shiny but matte, and a little bit scratched.