The Ballet of the Nations was an odd book to publish in the midst of the First World War, when pacifists were a persecuted minority and the publishing industry was struggling under the pressures of paper rationing, censorship, and mobilization.1 The story of its production points to an intersection between the peace movement and the London little theatres and is worth recounting as evidence of those overlapping networks. The author, Vernon Lee (1856–1935), was a cosmopolitan writer, known for her essays on travel and aesthetics, her ghost stories, and her erudition as a polyglot and scholar of the Italian Renaissance. She was also politically radical, a pacifist and campaigner for women’s suffrage whose outspoken objections to war alienated much of her readership and exacerbated her later obscurity as a writer.2 She joined the Union of Democratic Control (UDC), a pressure group which formed in 1914 to scrutinize British foreign policy and war aims, and which opposed conscription, censorship, and the restriction of civil liberties that were increasingly a feature of the war.3 It was through the UDC that The Ballet of the Nations came to the attention of publishers. In the first instance, Lee brought the script to her friends, the writer Constance Smedley Armfield (1876–1941) and her husband, the artist Maxwell Armfield (1881–1972), whom she knew through the International Lyceum Club for Women Artists and Writers, which Smedley had established a decade earlier.4 The Armfields arranged for Lee to recite The Ballet of the Nations at a UDC meeting, which they hosted in their studio in Chelsea, and then at another meeting in the more public forum of the Margaret Morris Theatre on the King’s Road, which the peace campaigner Kate Courtney noted in her diary as follows:
UDC Meeting in theatre, corner of Flood St. “Vernon Lee” gave her striking allegory, “The Ballet of the Nations”, for second time. Ch. Trevelyan spoke, and a Miss Cooper Willis gave us an interesting selection from Burke and Fox about peace with revolutionary France—very apt. I was in chair. Very so-so. Audience interested—all polite.”5
Amongst the audience was Geoffrey Whitworth, a theatre critic and editor at Chatto & Windus, who commissioned the book for publication (Fig. 1). Armfield illustrated the text with a “pictorial commentary”, which gives the book its striking appearance. This exhibition takes the making of The Ballet of the Nations as the starting point for an exploration of the overlapping networks and working relationships that formed around Armfield, Morris, Whitworth, and their students and collaborators, in and beyond Chelsea during and after the First World War. The excavation of visual and aural material begins here with Lee and Armfield’s book, and with the record of the personal and political commitments that drew them together.
Vernon Lee, The Ballet of the Nations: A Present-Day Morality, with a Pictorial Commentary by Maxwell Ashby Armfield (London: Chatto & Windus, 1915).
Digital facsimile courtesy of Chatto & Windus, Penguin Random House UK, and The Estate of Maxwell Ashby Armfield.
First Italian Exhibition of Impressionism, Lyceum Club, Florence, April-May 1910, front cover. Collection of The Lyceum Club, Florence.
Digital image courtesy of The Lyceum Club, Florence.
Eliss and Walkry, “The Latest Exponent of the Delsartian School: Miss Ruth St Denis as Radha, Wife of Krishna, the Eighth Incarnation of Vishnu”, photograph, The Illustrated London News, 31 October 1908, 16.
Digital image courtesy of Illustrated London News Group.