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Lot 330, 11 Jun 96
DescriptionThe important group of five awarded to Alice, The Honourable Mrs George Keppel, notorious Mistress of King Edward VII and international Grande Dame
1914 Star (Hon. A. F. Keppel, B.R.C.S. & O.St.J.J.); British War and Victory Medals (The Hon. A. F. Keppel, B.R.C.S. & O.St.J.J.); Coronation 1902, silver; Jubilee 1935, good very fine (5)
FootnoteThe Honourable Mrs. George Keppel was christened Alice Frederica Edmonstone, and was the eighth daughter of Admiral Sir William Edmonstone, 4th Baronet, of Dunreath Castle, Stirlingshire. Her childhood was spent at the family seat, where she was happiest striding across the moors, and was never above ‘joining the gillies in a wild game of cricket.’ In 1891, at the age of twenty-two, she married Lieutenant the Hon. George Keppel of the Gordon Highlanders. The third son of the seventh Earl of Albermarle, he was, according to the Duchess of Marlborough, ‘one of those tall handsome Englishmen who, immaculately dressed, proclaim the perfect gentleman’. They were ideally suited to each other, and although possessing relatively little money, the good looking and well connected Keppels quickly established themselves in society, through Alice’s ‘vivacity and wit, her knowledge of what went on in the narrow but fascinating world in which she lived and her equal capacity for recounting and listening to anecdotes.’ Indeed they were soon both in step with the mores of the racy Marlborough House Set, and it has been suggested that Alice’s first child was fathered not by George but by the wealthy Ernest Beckett, the future Lord Grimthorpe.
In 1898, Alice Keppel met Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, for the first time. She was twenty-nine and at the height of her attractiveness. He was fifty-seven, easily bored and accustomed to exercising a sort of droit de seigneur over the ladies of high society. Besides innumerable brief encounters, Edward had enjoyed two long term mistresses; Lillie Langtry and Daisy Greville, Countess of Warwick. There appear to be several versions of the first meeting between Alice Keppel and Edward. One has it that she caught the eye of the Prince during an inspection of the Norfolk Yeomanry, of which he was Colonel-in-Chief, and George Keppel a serving officer. The Prince, it is said, immediately turned to Lord Leicester and asked him to present her. A few days later, the Prince spotted the ‘delectable Alice’ at Sandown races on the arm of Sir John Leslie who was summoned forthwith into the Royal presence. As Leslie made to present her, a look ‘blending shrewd appraisement and admiration’ crossed the Royal visage as the Prince again cast an eye over Mrs. Keppel. ‘A glance in Leslie’s direction indicated that his presence was no longer required.’ The Baroness de Stoeckl, however, maintained in her memoirs that it was she, who ‘knowing something of the Prince’s taste in women and thinking that he might be amused by the young Mrs. Keppel, brought them together at ‘a small luncheon party during the Prince’s annual spring holiday to the Riviera’.
Early that same year the Prince paid his first visit to the Keppels' London home. ‘Bertie was immediately attracted by his hostess’s wit and husky voice, her disarming manner and unselfconscious charm, and ‘that evening led to a relationship which warmed with the speed of a bonfire and lasted unwaveringly to the end of his life.’ George Keppel, a gentleman to his fingertips, accepted the situation unquestioningly, and made his own arrangements elsewhere. Although it seemed to some members of Society that he was altogether too tolerant. ‘Had Keppel been put up for membership at some London clubs’, it was said, ‘the black balls would have come rolling out like caviar.’ His acquiescence was such that he even allowed himself to be given a job by the King’s sailing companion, Sir Thomas Lipton, which involved frequent and lengthy trips to the United States.
Like Lillie Langtry before her, Alice was obliged to move into a grander house befitting the role of royal mistress, and the Keppels left Wilton Crescent to take up residence at 30 Portman Square, where most of the royal affair was to be conducted. If an extraordinarily smart coupé with a coachman whose hat bore no cockade, stood outside the house, Alice’s friends knew better than to ring the doorbell. The King was usually accompanied on these visits by Caesar, his badly behaved fox terrier, and on occasion would entertain the Keppel children by allowing them to slide pieces of toast down his trousers, butter side down, whilst betting on which piece would arrive at the bottom first. The eldest of the Keppel children, Violet, later liked people to think that she was the King’s daughter, but she was not, ‘Les dates ne constataient’. She had in fact been born on 2 June 1894, and was to gain notoriety in 1918 through her turbulent affair with her life long friend Vita Sackville-West, although married to Royal Horse Guards major, Denys Trefusis. The Keppels' other daughter, Sonia, was born on 24 May 1900 and claimed that her mother had told her that two weeks earlier she had celebrated the Relief of Mafeking sitting astride a lion in Trafalgar Square.
The liaison was welcomed in several unexpected quarters. Alice became a prerequisite of a successful house-party in all but the stuffier households where the Prince was to be entertained. In fact, ‘Most hostesses were relieved when Mrs. Keppel was on hand to cope with Bertie.’ She always ‘knew the choicest scandal, the price of stocks, the latest political move. No one could better amuse the Prince during the tedium of long dinners’. However whenever she was barred from one of the great houses, she quite often triumphed over the embarrassment. On one such occasion, when that pillar of Victorian rectitude, Lord Salisbury, had invited the Sovereigns to Hatfield, Alice accepted an invitation to stay at nearby Knebworth, the seat of Lord Lytton. On hearing that Alice was staying close by, the entire Hatfield party, to Salisbury’s chagrin, travelled over to Knebworth for tea.
Courtiers too had good reason to be thankful for the Keppels’ discretion. Twice before, the Prince’s less than ideal lifestyle had resulted in his appearance in court and rocked the Monarchy. Firstly in connection with the Tranby Croft affair which led to ‘Social Death’ for his old friend Lt-Col Sir William Gordon-Cumming, and secondly as a ‘witness’ in the Mordaunt divorce case. Whilst the Princess of Wales was unable to profess any liking for Alice Keppel, she was tolerant of the situation and most probably grateful that she improved her husband’s temper, and did not flaunt her position in the way that Daisy Warwick had once done. The view of Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone, however, that ‘Queen Alexandra was very fond of her and encouraged the liaison’ is widely known, if not strictly accurate. Perhaps, as one commentator has put it, Alexandra’s ‘acceptance of her husband’s mistress could simply have been a manifestation of her own self-absorbtion.’
Alice and the King were rarely separated in England at all. The Keppels were frequent guests at Sandringham for the shoots which marked the King’s and Queen’s birthdays, and were also included in the deer-stalking parties at Balmoral and Abergeldie Castle. Alice always brought a certain zest to these Royal gatherings, which never failed to entertain Edward. However, other members of the Royal Family sometimes found her constant presence irksome. During Cowes Week 1908, May, Duchess of York, wrote to her husband, ‘Georgie’, (later George V) enquiring, ‘How are things going in general? I mean does peace reign or have you had a difficult time?’ George had no difficulty in interpreting this question and replied, ‘Alas, Mrs. K arrives tomorrow and stops here in a yacht, I am afraid that peace and quiet will not remain.’
On 18 January 1901, the Prince, now in his sixtieth year, was summoned to Osborne where Queen Victoria was slowly dying. After decades of waiting in the wings, he was shortly to fulfil the role in which he had been rehearsed since birth. The young Winston Churchill wrote to his mother, Jennie Churchill, speculating on what the new reign might hold in store. ‘Will it entirely revolutionise his way of life? Will he sell his horses and scatter his Jews [a reference to his rich friends, such as Ernest Cassel, Arthur Sassoon and Nathaniel Rothschild] or will Reuben Sassoon be enshrined among the crown jewels and other regalia? Will he become desperately serious? Will he continue to be friendly to you? Will the Keppel be appointed 1st Lady of the Bedchamber?’ Churchill soon found very little was to change.
Of all the sights to be seen at the Coronation, none drew closer attention than the ‘King’s Loose Box’; the special reserved pew arranged by Edward for Alice Keppel, Lady Warwick, Lillie Langtry, Sarah Bernhardt, Jennie Churchill, Leonie Churchill and Princess Daisy of Pless. From the start of the new reign Alice Keppel was to the fore, remaining, in the widely used phrase, ‘La Favorita.’ Even beyond the fashionable set the Royal affair was fully acknowledged. Once, on instructing a Hansom cab to “King’s Cross”, the driver recognising Mrs. Keppel, replied “Not with you ma’am.”
Besides Alice, the King’s most intimate circle comprised Sir Ernest Cassel, his shrewd financial adviser, and the suave and quick-witted Portuguese diplomat, the Marquis of Soveral. Cassel had skillfully handled the royal finances and being aware of the depth of the King’s feelings for Alice, was ready to offer her financial advice and market tips. In view of the Keppels’ generally shaky finances, it is hardly surprising that Alice acted eagerly upon Sir Ernest’s inside information. However, her success in the market soon gave rise to jealous comments of the ill-informed. The Duchess of Marlborough for one was quick to remark that Alice “knew how to choose her friends with shrewd appraisal,” and even Sir Harold Acton, who was later to come to know her well, admitted, “Mrs. Keppel was fascinated by the power of capitalism.” In years to come Vita Sackville-West would draw on Alice as the model for the materialistic and mercenary Mrs. Romola Cheyne in her novel ‘The Edwardians’.
During the King’s annual spring holidays to Biarritz, ‘Alice Keppel’ according to one of Edward VII’s biographers ‘was Queen.’ Neither Alexandra or George Keppel ever accompanied their spouses on these trips to that “awful Biarritz” as the former termed it. The King and Alice never travelled to the resort together. Usually the King would start out at the beginning of March, spending a few days in Paris en route to relive some of the pleasures of his protracted youth. At the resort he would find Alice waiting for him, not at his hotel, for the sake of appearances, but at Sir Ernest Cassel’s luxurious villa, the former home of the Empress Eugenie during the Second Empire. Alice’s journey to Biarritz started from Victoria station, where a specially reserved carriage was laid on for herself, her two daughters, their governess, their nurse, a ladies’ maid, a courier supplied by the palace, and a mountain of luggage. On leaving her special suite of cabins on board the boat, Alice would be formally received by the chef-de-gare and escorted, unchecked through customs. Another private railway carriage, known by the curious to be occupied by ‘La Maitresse Du Roi’, would then convey the party through the night to Biarritz.
At noon each day, Alice and the King would meet. After a hasty lunch, invariably of plovers eggs, a fish course, a meat dish, accompanied by champagne, Perrier water and claret, and followed by the King’s customary balloon of Napoleon brandy and a Corona y Coronas cigar, they would embark on one of their excursions. In a fleet of claret coloured cars, the royal party would watch pelota matches at Anglet or the races at La Barre. The King was, for some inexplicable reason fond of roadside picnics, and would sit contentedly, oblivious to the stares of the passers by, surrounded by a sumptuous feast and attentive footmen, relishing his anonymity. The evenings were formal occasions. A copious dinner was served in the royal suite at eight fifteen, to the King and his guests, who were never more than ten in number. Often Alice would be the only lady present. In tolerant Republican France Alice Keppel reigned undisputed.
Contrary to popular belief, Alice never accompanied the King to the spa at Marienbad in the realm of the stiff-backed old Emperor Franz Joseph. It was, however, well known that the Emperor had a long standing mistress of his own but, unlike Alice Keppel, Katharine Schratt was never openly paraded, and ‘Edward VII thought too highly of Alice to subject her to the indignity of a clandestine existence even for a few weeks.’ After the spring sojourn in the South of France, the King and Alice would spend several days in Paris before going their separate ways. Here Alice stayed at Cassel’s spacious appartment in the Rue du Cirque, and the King in his suite at the Bristol. Like Lillie Langtry, and Daisy Warwick before her, Alice was feted at the dressmakers, Worth, and dined at the King’s favourite restaurants, surrounded by French policemen trying to look inconspicuous.
There has been much dispute as to the extent of Alice Keppel’s political influence on Edward VII. According to Margot Asquith, she was a Liberal. “To be a Liberal in high Society is rare”, Lady Asquith declared, “indeed I often wonder in what society they are to be found; I do not meet them among golfers, soldiers, sailors or servants; nor have I seen much liberalism in the Church, the Court or the City; but Alice Keppel was born in Scotland and has remained a true Liberal.’ Alice’s Liberalism would on occasion manifest itself in practical ways. One afternoon, her Portman Square neighbour, Lord Alington offered to take her for a drive, and asked where she would like to go. To Alington’s surprise, Alice said Hoxton in the East End, a notorious slum, largely owned and never seen by Alington. After a three hour tour of the depressingly squalid streets, during which they were stared at and jeered at by sullen looking men, women and their ragged offspring, they returned to Portman Square, whereupon Alice declared “I do think it was charming of you to let me see Hoxton as it is now. Next time I go there I shan’t recognise it.”
In reply to Margot Asquith’s claim that Alice was the King’s political confidante, Alice categorically stated that she had never been told a Cabinet secret in her life. Nevertheless, Margot’s printed assertions ‘got her into endless hot water with George V.’ What is known, however, is that Alice allowed herself to be used as a sort of liaison officer between the King and important men of the day, whom she permitted herself to be seated next to at dinner, in order to sound them out on certain subjects. During a visit of the Kaiser at a time when relations were particularly strained, Alice’s skill in this department had Count Memsdorff, the debonair Austrian Ambassador in London, dying to know ‘what sort of report she sent back to Sandringham’. In fact, Alice’s charms worked so well on the German Emperor that she remained on better terms with him than did either Edward or Alexandra. In this respect, Lord Hardinge the Permanent Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, and later Viceroy of India, paid her a remarkable tribute written in a private memorandum shortly after the King’s death. ‘Everybody knew of the friendship that existed between King Edward and Mrs. George Keppel, which was intelligible in view of the lady’s good looks, vivacity and cleverness. I used to see a great deal of Mrs. Keppel at the time, and I was aware that she had knowledge of what was going on in the political world. I would like here to pay a tribute to her wonderful discretion, and to the excellent influence which she always exercised upon the King. She never utilised her knowledge to her own advantage, or that of her friends; and I never heard her repeat an unkind word of anybody. There were one or two occasions when the King was in disagreement with the Foreign Office, and I was able, through her, to advise the King with a view to the policy of the Government being accepted. She was very loyal to the King, and patriotic at the same time. It would have been difficult to find any other lady who would have filled the part of friend to King Edward with the same loyalty and discretion’.
During the annual Spring jaunt to Biarritz in 1910, bronchitis struck the King down. He returned to London on 27 April in slightly better health, but his staff all noticed the change in him. By 3 May he was again the grip of bronchial asthma. That evening Alice Keppel and Mrs. James dined with him at Buckingham Palace. The King could eat little and to save his voice, they played cards. On the 5th, Alice received a message from the Queen who, knowing how it would comfort ‘Bertie’, asked her to come to the Palace urgently. The King’s mistress obeyed, and spent a few final minutes alone with the Monarch. The next day, at 11:45pm, the King died. Or that at least is the version of events which has passed into the flattering saga of the Royal Family. The truth according to the private papers of Viscount Esher, who was in the Palace on the day the King died, and the revelations of Sir Francis Laking, the King’s doctor, recorded in the unpublished secret diary of Wilfred Scawen Blunt, is somewhat different.
The first news of the King’s illness reached Queen Alexandra on holiday in Corfu, and, until her return, Alice had been constantly in and out of the palace. Fearing that the Queen would not allow her near her dying lover, Alice sent Alexandra the note written by the King in 1902, stating that ‘if he were dying, he felt sure that those about him would allow her to come and see him.’ This coupled with the King’s own request forced the reluctant Queen to summon Alice. An extraordinary scene then took place. Alice entered the King’s bedroom and, having curtseyed to the Queen and Princess Victoria, sat beside the King who, minus his false teeth, began to stroke her hand. Then the King spoke, “You must kiss her. You must kiss Alice.” The Queen barely disguising her revulsion obeyed, but afterwards was to deny that any such act had occurred. Alexandra then instructed Laking to “Get that woman away.”
Alice was by now hysterical, and was only induced to leave the room when she was firmly told that the King wished to be alone with the Queen. As Princess Victoria led her away Alice shrieked at the top of her voice, “I never did any harm, there was nothing wrong between us. What is to become of me?”, ‘for all the pages and footmen in the passages to hear.’ ‘Altogether’, wrote Lord Esher, ‘ it was a painful and rather theatrical exhibition, and ought never to have happened.’ Just after the King died, Alexandra confided to Sir Francis, “I would not have kissed her if he had not bade me. But I would have done anything he asked of me.” In an effort to secure her future Alice, as soon as she could, rushed to Marlborough House, but the new Monarchs were having none of her. Realising that a new wind was blowing, Alice quickly regained her composure and put about the story of the all-forgiving Queen summoning her to the King’s bedside. As Esher put it, ‘Mrs. Keppel lied about the whole affair.’
Nevertheless Alice Keppel’s world was shattered, and she and her family left the country for almost two years, travelling to Ceylon and China. When they did return to London, they took up residence at 16 Grosvenor Street, where, freed from former financial worries by the generous provision made for her by the late King, they entertained lavishly until the outbreak of the Great War in 1914. Despite his relatively advanced age, George Keppel immediately joined a City of London volunteer battalion of Kitchener’s New Army, commanded by his kinsman, Colonel ‘Bobby’ White, and commenced training as ‘ one of the oldest Lieutenants in the British Army, on Salisbury Plain’. Alice too determined to have a part to play, and went out to France with her old friend, the redoubtable Lady Sarah Wilson, to run a field-hospital at Etaples. As a child, Sonia Keppel used to think of Lady Sarah, ‘in the same category as Miss Florence Nightingale’. Married to an officer of the Household Cavalry who was killed in action in 1914, Lady Sarah was by birth a Churchill; a sister to Lord Randolph and an aunt to Winston. Shortly before the outbreak of the Boer War, she had been travelling through South Africa intending to stay with friends in Rhodesia, and thus was on hand to play a heroine’s role in the Siege of Mafeking. By early 1915, Alice’s job at Etaples had become ‘more elastic’, and she spent longer periods at home in London. Meanwhile, George rose rapidly to the rank of Major and, in 1916-17 was promoted Lieutenant-Colonel commanding the 2/4th East Lancs., and ended the war in command of the 2/5th Highland Light Infantry.
In 1927 the Keppels left London once more and went to live in Italy at the Villa dell’Ombrellino on Bellogosuardo above Florence. Here Alice Keppel established herself as an internationally celebrated grande dame, the hostess of numerous parties. Writing of her in 1934, as she approached her 71st birthday, Sir Henry ‘Chips’ Channon noted ‘Mrs. Keppel is grey and magnificent, and young in spirit, but she cannot resist lying and inventing, and saying anything that comes into her Roman head. It is a habit she contracted long ago when, to amuse the blasé King Edward, she used to tell him all the news of the day spiced with her own humour. She is like a worldly Roman matron, but minus the cruelty.’
Staying in London during the abdication crisis, Alice found Edward VIII’s desire to sleep with Wallis Simpson understandable, but his wish to marry her incomprehensible, and announced in her deep voice, to ‘all London’ dining at the Ritz that evening, “Things were done much better in my day.” Italy’s entry into the Second World War saw the speedy return of the Keppels to England, causing Mrs. Ronnie Greville, godmother to one of the Keppel daughters to comment, ‘To hear Alice talk about her escape from France, one would think she had swum the Channel, with her maid between her teeth.’ Renting a house from Mrs. Walter Heneage at West Coker in Dorset, the Keppels also spent much of the war living at the Ritz, preferring, as Alice put it, ‘bombs to boredom.’ Here they could be seen; George Keppel now ‘a tall soldierly personage, somewhat slow-footed, however, and stooped by time’, with Alice at his side; ‘a clear eyed, straight backed lady, who wore pearls and a noble air of belonging, unmistakably unselfconsciously, to a different period’. Sir Harold Acton observed, ‘She created her own aura of grandeur in the suitably Edwardian lounge, far more regal than poor King Zog and Queen Geraldine of Albania, who had taken refuge in the same caravanserai.’ Indeed it seemed, ‘Wherever she pitched her tent she appeared to rule.’ During the war years, Alice could also be seen, ‘holding uproarious court to gatherings of equivocal young men in London pubs.’
The Keppels returned to Tuscany after the war, but within two years, Alice, ‘the most colourful living reminder of Edward VII’s scandalous love life’, was dead. ‘In short’, writes Theo Aronson, ‘Alice Keppel was not simply an Edwardian ghost. No more than with Lillie Langtry or Daisy Warwick did her fame solely rely on the fact that she had once been a mistress of Edward VII. Like them, Alice was a woman of intelligence and independence, very much a personality in her own right.’
‘Two months later’, Violet Trefusis wrote, ‘my father died also. He did not wish to survive without her. Always the most courteous of men, it was though he were loth to keep her waiting.’
Provenance: Sale of Objets de Vitrine from the Collection of Mrs. George Keppel, Sotheby’s, Geneva, Thursday 11th May, 1989. Following the death of Mrs George Keppel in 1947 her personal objects, including her medals, were placed in a black strong box and deposited with Drummond’s Bank. It remained unopened until the death of her daughter, the Hon. Mrs Sonia Cubitt, in 1986, the contents being subsequently sold by Sotheby’s. The sale included many small gifts from King Edward VII, often of a personal nature, including a diamond set, gold and enamel nautical brooch. The four enamelled flags, when translated, revealed the signal “Position quarterly and open. I am about to fire a Whitehead torpedo ahead.”