Kathryn and Nick meet 20s pianist Robert Johnson, the tempo setter for the most lavish parties in Chiswick House’s history
As we trooped embarrassedly along the edge of the dual carriageway, gaggles of locals were swarming from their homes to form a steady flow of foot traffic towards Chiswick House. A swathe of groomed be-suited males waddled carefully alongside brightly coloured ball gowns and elevated hair. Expensive looking masks were firmly secured to the face of each marcher… we must have looked stupidly under dressed by comparison.
We were on our way to the Chiswick House masked ball, where the spirit of 1928 was returning. The draw, because this type of shindig is clearly not our cup-of-tea, was that original pianist, Robert Johnson, would be manning the piano. He was there first time round, when in its final year of private ownership, Chiswick House witnessed the grandest garden parties and bouncing balls ever held in the city… and this Palladian Villa had an epic final fling with London society.
Raising our Woolworth quality masks to our faces, we presented a pair of scuffed tickets at the gate and entered the majestic grounds. It was almost 4.00pm and still very bright, but the fairy lights were out in force. Gone were the dog walkers, and in the extensive stretch of grass and gardens between the house and the lake, a large marquee had been erected which appeared at first glance to almost be on a par with the width and length of Chiswick House itself. Then we smelled it; the unmistakable stench of warm mead…
We made a beeline to the nearest entrance, mingling with the crowds of properly dressed partygoers as we hunted for our heated nectar. Inside the marquee had been decked out as the faux Domed Hall from inside the house complete with chandelier above an eight-point Masonic star. But our eyes were drawn to the fireplace at the furthest end where we could see steam rising… the mead section. We may have jogged, masks raised obviously, in a most undignified attempt to hasten the delivery of much needed honey goodness.
In front of us was the biggest collection of mead we’d ever seen: blackberry, blueberry, boysenberry, blackcurrant, black cherry, bael, bilberry and black mulberry… and that was just the fruits that began with ‘b’. Armed with ridiculously large glasses of steaming blackberry mead, we headed across the marquee to music section. The band was setting up at the edge of the dance floor and we wanted to catch Robert Johnson before he began his set.
“You must be Kathryn and Nick, right?” For some reason we thought he’d have the Cab Calloway’s about him… despite knowing that he was a white guy from the east end of London. Impeccably dressed in a black tuxedo and white, distinctly-1980s-looking ruffed shirt, Robert Johnson could have easily passed for a man in his early 70s. His black hair bore a healthy portion of winter plumage, but was thick, straight and unruly. As we mumbled our replies and shook hands, we were invited to sit… our interview had begun.
“It sure aint like it used to be. The last time I was here the piano was a full-sized concert model,” he begins, tapping the top of the Steinway baby grand, before gliding into position in front of the keys, “and all the garden party tents used to have an Art Deco feel inside… the dress is about the same though, well except for you guys.”
It isn’t hard to believe that Robert Johnson was the musician of choice for private parties and soirees back in the 20s and 30s. He still looks the part; elegant and in control. Back when he first started out, music hall, like American vaudeville was a new movement in its own right. Forget your Chas n’ Dave misconceptions, this was a genre that combined comedy, poetry, acting and musical talent. It was entertainment for the masses, but was not a working class bastion of under privilege like you might imagine.
Robert comes from a pretty affluent background. His family owned and managed a range of commercial and private properties, including theatres, music halls and playhouses. He was a constant fixture in any family-owned building that contained musical instruments and musicians. By the time he was four-years-old, Robert was taking lessons from all of the piano players on the company payroll. By the time he was ten, he was better than all of them and playing shows himself. By aged 17, in 1928, he was the most in demand performer in the city of London.
“That was a ridiculous year. It started off with a devastating flood… by the first week in January most of the places around here were under water. Flooding in Hammersmith was five feet deep. People died, 4000 folks across the capital lost their homes… it was horrible, yet, there was this undercurrent of optimism. The people I knew were set on cramming as much fun into their lives as possible and so was I.”
Natural disasters aside it was a great time to be in the city, the fog of World War I had lifted, and London was experiencing a magnificent resurgence. Global money worries and stock market crashes with the prefix ‘black’ were inconceivable; and a new generation of Bright Young Things stalked the streets of London.
“I knew a lot of playwrights and songwriters through my work in the theatres and music halls: Ivor Novello, Noel Coward… even PG Wodehouse. It was through this bunch that I became acquainted with some of the biggest hellraisers of old London town.”
Forget your hipsters, your punks, your hippies or z-list celebrities. London’s selection of so-called Bright Young People tore up the town unlike anyone has managed since. Made up of luminaries such as Evelyn Waugh, John Betjeman, the Mitford girls, Stephen Tennant, Robert Byron and a host of other aristocrats, artists, drunks and vagabonds; this young set of bohemians and socialites set the bar high for debauchery and bad behaviour.
From breaking into the grounds of Buckingham Palace and taking tea on the croquet lawn; to staging horse and carriage races down Bond Street… they were seen as both the darlings of the tabloids and a pack of incompetent nuisances. They perhaps took things too far one Saturday, when Byron, who had been noted for his impersonations of Queen Victoria whilst at University, came up with a plan to infiltrate a US Embassy party dressed as George V.
“It was the night of the penultimate ball here in Chiswick. I’d wanted nothing to do with that one, besides I’d been engaged to be here at the ivories. The plan was to crash the party in the guise of the King – a treasonable offence at the time I think – complete with a suitable entourage of Young Ones dressed up as statesmen, courtiers and servants. What could possibly go wrong, right?”
The ruse got off to a good start, the gate guards at the Embassy in Grosvenor Gardens were so shocked by the appearance of George V that they let him through to the front door. It was Byron’s appearance on the announcing line that let the group down… unfortunately, nobody had considered the fact that many people in the room, including the US Ambassador, had met the King on numerous occasions and would not be easily fooled by the false nose, fake beard and questionable garbs.
The chase that followed made all the papers at the time… it was a shame none of the official photographers at the event attempted to get a snap. Local residents were astonished to see the King of England – in full ceremonial dress – high tailing it through Mayfair with members of his court, closely pursued by an armed militia of angry marines, who were unsure as to whether they should be shooting or not.
“It was reported in the Daily Express that the King was yelling: ‘The British are coming, the British are coming!’ as he ran. They all escaped in taxis, closely followed by the marines, in their own taxis. As I was playing a selection of Cole Porter’s greatest hits here in this garden, a fancy dress car chase was under way across London. I came back on stage after the interval to find Bryon hiding under my piano like an errant Bertie Wooster and begging me for a mask and change of clothes.”
Within half an hour the garden was crawling with gun-toting marines, Scotland Yard policemen, army officers and diplomats. Nobody knew what crime had been committed, nobody knew who was in charge… and a selection of Young Ones, freshly changed and be-masked, walked between them all having a jolly old time.
“The final party at Chiswick House was never going to top that one. It was good, but a lot of people were understandably trying to keep a low profile. It always felt like a bit of an anti-climax. That’s why I’m here tonight… perhaps I’ll bump into a few old friends?”
Then, with a quick glance under the piano, Robert Johnson began to play.