Timeless (I)

audley house
The home of James Purdey & Sons since the 1880s, Audley House, on South Audley Street—at one time, Beau Brummell lived on that street in Mayfair.

by Terry Wieland

It is a truth universally acknowledged—at least among those who have it—that you can’t buy good taste.  Many have tried; all have failed.  There is a subcult that holds that, if you have enough money, you don’t need good taste.  I would counter that, if you have good taste, you don’t need money.  Or at least, not huge amounts.

The literary among you will notice that I began by paraphrasing Jane Austen’s opening from Pride and Prejudice, probably the most tasteful novel in English or anywhere else.  It’s an almost-truth, almost universally acknowledged, that Mr. Darcy—he who still sets maiden hearts a-flutter from the cold confines of the printed page, more than two centuries later—was based at least in part on George Bryan Brummell, better known as the Beau.

Beau Brummell was a contemporary of Miss Austen.  She was born in 1775, he in 1778.  Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813, when Brummell was at the height of his fame and influence, and Miss Austen died in 1817, barely a year after Brummell fled, in 1816, to the Continent, half a step ahead of his creditors and already displaying strong signs of the syphilis that would ultimately kill him.  Since she herself was ill and mostly bedridden during her last year, it’s doubtful Miss Austen knew of the Beau’s downfall.

Ultimately it doesn’t matter, since both—to say nothing of Mr. Darcy—have long since achieved immortality.

The interweaving of their lives, their manners, and their tastes are part of a much greater scene—Regency England—which, it can be argued, set the tone to this very day for everything from men’s clothing to gentlemen’s fowling pieces to the role of women in society.  It was called “The Age of Elegance,” and it certainly was that.

To a great extent, it all revolves around Brummell.  Late in his life, he stated “I, Brummell, put the modern man into pants, dark coat, white shirt and clean linen.  I dare say that will be sufficient to secure my fame.”  More than sufficient, actually, but he also caused the modern man to bathe regularly, wash his hair, eschew strong perfumes and cosmetics, and shun flashy jewelry.

When he arrived in London, men were wearing knee breeches and stockings, buckled shoes, bulky and ill-fitting coats of unseemly colors, and a few were even clinging to powdered wigs, rouge, and eye liner.  When he left, 17 years later, they were wearing dark, beautifully tailored coats, snowy white linen, trousers, and boots—remarkably similar to what we wear today.

Brummell designed evening dress—what Americans call the tuxedo—which, in its understated elegance, is a timeless tribute to good taste.  To this day, if a movie star shows up at a gala in anything other than black tie, it’s worthy of comment:  What is noted is not what the celebrity wore so much as what he did not:  Even by its absence, Brummell’s taste predominates.

Out of the Regency period grew our taste in guns as well.

From the exquisite and deadly duelling pistols of John Twigg, to the fowling pieces of the Mantons, came the style that defined James Purdey.  If you don’t believe that, here’s a little test:  Put a Purdey made in 1870 beside one made in 1912, another made in 1939, and one made today, and you will find that none of them look dated in the least.  You can do the same with classic men’s evening wear, and arrive at the same conclusion.

A fowling piece by Joseph Manton, the gunmaker who defined the tone, set the exacting standards, and trained such famous makers as Thomas Boss, Charles Lancaster, and James Purdey.

There are minor touches and flourishes denoting this era or that, but you could arrive at a ball in any of them and it would gain you approving nods.  The same is true of any shoot you attend, carrying a Purdey shotgun.

Shortly after Brummell fled to France, his belongings were auctioned by Christie’s to (in part) pay some of his huge debts.  Listed as the belongings of a “gentleman of fashion, gone to the Continent,” the Christie’s catalogue included, famously, “Three capital double-barrelled Fowling Pieces by Manton.”  But there were also some pieces of furniture by Boulle (misspelled “Buhl”), a collection of rare Sèvres porcelain, and a library of English, French, and Italian literature “the best Editions and in fine Condition.”

Brummell was not noted for his interest in sporting matters, unless you include faro for high stakes, so having three Manton shotguns says a lot.  He admired them as he did the Sèvres porcelain and leather-bound first editions, and it must have been heart-breaking to leave them behind for the jackals to snarl over.

Today, Brummell is remembered (and revered) mostly for his contributions to men’s fashions but another famous personage contributed as well:  Sir Arthur Wellesley, later Duke of Wellington.  Brummell absconded to the Continent barely 11 months after the Battle of Waterloo, and at the time the Duke was not only the man of the hour, but the man of any hour, and was to remain so for the next 35 years.

A Purdey bar-in-wood pigeon gun, made around the time the company moved into Audley House. A gun of classic Purdey elegance, which Beau Brummell would surely have admired.

Between 1799 and 1815, while Brummell was in London setting the tone, Sir Arthur Wellesley was commanding armies, first in India, later in the Peninsular War, and finally, of course, at Waterloo.  Throughout his military career, as he rose in rank, Wellington was noted for wearing a plain dark blue frock coat, devoid of medals, facings, gold braid, and such like.  This was in stark contrast to other major military figures, including Napoleon Bonaparte.

While later portraits exist of him wearing his field marshal’s uniform, he is mostly remembered in his austere dark blue, and that was an enduring example for English gentlemen up to, and long after, his death in 1852.

The Manton brothers, John and Joseph, lived and worked throughout this period.  Together, they turned the modest fowling piece from a crude tool into a work of (almost) art, meticulously and beautifully fashioned from the best materials.  Unlike the gaudy products of some Continental gunmakers, a Manton fowler was understated, almost chaste, but of unrivalled workmanship.

Like Brummell himself, and of course Wellington, the name Manton found its way into literature and popular lore in the same way as Sèvres (porcelain), Boulle (furniture), Lobb (boots), and Lock (hats).

’Twas the Age of Elegance, indeed.

Gray’s shooting editor believes that, in the absence of money, one should always try to cultivate good taste.  Surely that counts for something.