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A Gondola Party at The Savoy

Gondola Party via AngelSmyth
Gondola Party photograph via AngelSmyth

In 1905, the courtyard of the Savoy hotel was flooded with four feet of water to host the party of American city planner, architect, and millionaire, George Kessler. While probably being one of the most luxurious and ludicrous events to ever occur at a London hotel, and certainly on the Strand, it is rather poorly reported upon by the hotel itself. Only a few tantalising details are given by the Fairmont Hotel group (who now own the Savoy), on their blog post of 100 Savoy facts and figures that are each screaming out for more research!

The Savoy’s Early History:

At the time of the Gondola party, the Savoy was relatively new to the ever-expanding London metropole, and even newer to the Strand. The hotel opened in 1889, however, it did not have an entrance on the Strand. Instead, visitors entered from the Embankment side.

The Savoy enlarged onto the Strand in 1904, creating the entrance we know today. This photo shows the Strand entrance of the Savoy in 1911, about seven years after its construction.  It helps to picture the hotel and the street in the time period of the Gondola party.

When the Strand entrance first opened it was far more pedestrian unlike the car-dominated present. (It is iconic for Londoners to claim that the Savoy is the only part of the UK where cars drive on the right side of the road, however, this has been somewhat debunked over the years.)

What did a Gondola Party entail?

Kessler’s Venetian-style birthday party was made possible by deliberately flooding an especially watertight courtyard floor. It is hard to encapsulate the decadence of the event, but a painting of the event illustrates the luxury.

This painting, by Fortunino Matania, depicts the 24-guests riding a gondola from one side of the courtyard to another:

Painting of Gondola Party, 1905

Painting of Gondola Party, 1905 cropped image from British Newspaper archive.

The image was captured for the tidy sum of £3000. This is equivalent to around £350,000 presently! The eye-catching painting was chosen as the front cover for the 8 July 1905 issue of The Sphere, a magazine known as ‘The Empire’s Weekly’.

As is observable, the guests are dining within the gondola, surrounded by a truly breath-taking Venetian setting. The evening was complete with “Costumed staff and guests”.

Not featured in the painting is the renowned operatic tenor, Enrico Caruso. The Neapolitan singer set the Italian scene by entertaining the guests all night long. While the name Caruso might not mean anything to many Londoners today (myself included), he was a ground-breaking musician at the turn of the century. Notably, Encyclopaedia Britannica notes that he was “one of the first musicians to document his voice on recordings”.

As far as more details pertaining to the party are concerned, the Savoy’s online records are somewhat limited considering the scale of the undertaking. The evening certainly peaked in bizarreness, when a five-foot birthday cake was brought out to the aquatic diners by a baby elephant. No expense seems to have been spared! Considering George Kessler was willing to spend £350,000 simply for a painting of the evening, a baby elephant waiter is perfectly in tune with the rest of the extravagant event.

Savoy birdseye view

Savoy birdseye view via Google Maps.

Where did this party take place exactly?

The Fairmont Hotel website is vague about where exactly the party took place aside from the mention of the “courtyard”. There are a couple of options: the entrance upon the Strand side shown above. Or, the central courtyard, which you can fly over on Google maps. Pictured here on the left.

So, where did Kessler and his guests dine upon a luxurious Gondola in 1905? We could speculate with reference to the Hotel Cecil, which once neighboured the Savoy.

The postcard print of the Hotel Cecil describes the view as the “courtyard” and was similar in design to the Savoy’s. The fact that this photo describes the entrance, as a “courtyard” suggests that it was possible that the Strand entrance of the Savoy is where the Gondola party was held.

While I was based out of London for most of my research, I have been able to contact the Savoy archivist, Susan Scott. She was very helpful and provided a final answer to all this speculation.

The following statement puts to the matter to rest:

“The old central courtyard became a mostly unused space, since no-one arrived at the hotel in this way any more. A few large parties were held in the courtyard, including the Gondola Party in 1905, but British weather meant that a party in the open air was always risky.” (from an email exchange)

Conclusion:

Therefore, my initial assumption that it was the entrance from the Strand that was used turned out to be false! Following the doubling of the size of the hotel with the construction of the Strand entrance in 1904, the central courtyard became redundant as an entrance. On the other hand, this opened the possibilities of some of the most lavish parties in London.

I may have solved this mystery; however, I have not hit the bottom of the Savoy’s treasure trove of wacky stories!


Featured image: photograph of the gondola party, via AngelSmyth.

See Théophraste’s post on Layers of London, to explore his stories in the wider context of the Strand and Westminster.

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