The Chelsea Flower Show may officially kick-start the London Season, but for me, it’s the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy that gets summer in London off to a rip-roaring start. The world’s largest open submission art exhibition signals a tee off for strawberries and cream, cucumber sandwiches, Pimms and lemonade, racing hats, flowing dresses, opera and outdoor theatre and music, school fêtes and regattas.
“I don’t care about the London season! It is too matrimonial. People are either hunting for husbands, or hiding from them.” Oscar Wilde
A London Debut
‘The Season’ was the summer interlude when society families made the pilgrimage from their vast country estates to the grand squares of London’s Mayfair and Belgravia. Debutantes would ‘come out’ to the Queen (or King), and young ladies could make their entrée into society.
The Season began sometime after Easter and ended on August 12. Outings included opera, theatre, concerts, horse and boat racing, lawn tennis, cricket, balls, dinner parties, breakfasts and rides along Rotten Row in Hyde Park.
I guess the London Season has changed somewhat since Oscar’s day, but I’m going to start with a nod to the great man in my first port of call: the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy, Burlington House, Piccadilly.
For Art’s Sake
In 1883, the artist William Powell Frith exhibited the magnificent ‘A Private View at the Royal Academy, 1881.’ The painting is a who’s who of Victorian society and includes famous politicians, novelists, journalists, cartoonists, sculptors and painters. Actors Ellen Terry and Henry Irving make an appearance together with Lillie Langtry, Anthony Trollope and the President of the Academy, Lord Frederic Leighton.
But all eyes are on the young man with his signature lily buttonhole: a 26 year-old Oscar Wilde. He had not penned a single book or play, but he was already a ‘cause celèbre’ due to both his wit and his mantra that art needed no justification: for Oscar it was art for art’s sake. You can read more about Oscar Wilde and the Summer Exhibition in this wonderful speech given by a modern-day Oscar, Stephen Fry (who also played Oscar in one of my favourite films ‘Wilde.’) Stephen Fry at the Royal Academy
The Summer Exhibition will be celebrating its 250th anniversary next year. Eileen Cooper, Keeper of the Royal Academy, is responsible for finding new talent, coordinating the world’s largest open submission exhibition and the subsequent hanging of 1200 works in just eight days. Most of the artwork is available to purchase and you can pick up some reasonably-priced gems. If you plan on buying, go as early as you can once the Summer Exhibition has opened, as the artwork does fly off the walls (not literally as it’s on until August). The Summer Exhibition at The Royal Academy is on from 13 June to 20 August.
Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre
This little beauty of a theatre is open all summer, and I mean literally, regardless of how soggy it gets. I have happily sat through two productions in the summer rain. This summer’s playbill is dominated by Dickens with ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ and ‘Oliver Twist,’ the latter adapted for little ones six years and over. Open Air Theatre is on from from 19 May to 23 September.
Chelsea Flower Show
Chelsea Flower Show is the second largest of its kind in Britain (Hampton Court being the largest). It’s been a London fixture since 1862 apart from two interruptions during the World Wars. The show has been held in the grounds of the Chelsea Hospital since 1913, and the Royal Family make an appearance every year. Fun fact: Chelsea Flower Show forbids the use of coloured sculptures, so garden gnomes are not allowed. The RHS Chelsea Flower Show is on at the end of May, and is now closed.
Opera Holland Park
Opera Holland Park is one of London’s summer musical highlights. Like Regent’s Open Air Theatre, it’s an outdoor event but set under a temporary canopy. The park’s Holland House was largely destroyed during the Blitz, and its magnificent ruins now provide the backdrop for Opera Holland Park. Half-a-dozen or so operas are staged every year, sung in their original language. You can bring your own picnic or you can order one from the organisers.
The season runs from 1 June to 29 July with 28 main-stage productions. The hugely successful family opera, ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ is running for its fourth year this summer. Holland Park
Trooping the Colour
Trooping the Colour marks the official birthday celebration of the British sovereign, and it’s been going since 1748. The Queen’s actual birthday is on the 21 April, but it is celebrated on the second Saturday in June (as April was deemed too cold for the ceremony). 1000 service personnel, 200 horses and 200 musicians participate in Trooping the Colour. Events begin at 10am when the Queen travels from Buckingham Palace with her Household Cavalry to Horse Guards Parade near St James’s Park. She inspects her troops before returning to the Buckingham Palace balcony with the Royal Family. The ceremony ends with a 41-gun salute and the Royal Air Force flypast at 1pm.
Tickets for Trooping the Colour are by ballot and closed for this year, but you can catch it live on BBC1. This year’s Trooping the Colour falls on Saturday June 17.
Queen’s Club Championships
This men-only grass court tennis tournament, which dates to 1884, takes place in the Queen’s Club in West Kensington and is the warm-up to Wimbledon. The Queen’s Club Championship is on from 19 to 25 June. As of the publication of this post, there are limited tickets available for some dates early in the championship which you can purchase here.
If ever there was a season fixture which was about strawberries and cream, then this is it. 28,000 kilos of strawberries and 10,000 litres of cream are served on average each year, all washed down with 29,000 bottles of champagne. Wimbledon is the world’s oldest tennis tournament, established in 1877 at the All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club. Tickets are obtained through a ballot system, or you can join the long queues for tickets on the day of the match. Wimbledon is on from 3 July to 16 July.
Lord’s Test Match Cricket
Let me start by saying I do not understand cricket. Having said that, there is something so very British about watching a cricket match in a village green, the players doing what they do in their immaculate whites (or flannels). My friends who go to Lord’s in St John’s Wood don’t watch much cricket. Instead, there seems to be a large consumption of booze. With a side of afternoon tea. Lord’s Test Match Cricket season is on from 6 July to 7 September.
Out of Towners
Derby Day Epsom Downs
The first recorded race was in 1625, with Samuel Pepys making refences to it in his famous diaries. Charles II is said to have raced there, and suffragette Emily Davison ran in front of the King’s horse in 1913 (she died from her wounds two weeks after). Towards the end of the 18th century, Derby Day was the ‘Londoners’ Day Out,’ an event accessible to all, although Dickens thought that Ascot was ‘far superior to Epsom for the general quality of its sport and its visitors.*’ Derby Day is Friday 2 and Saturday 3 June. Epsom Derby
*’Dickens’s Dictionary of London 1888’
Cartier Polo – Queen’s Cup
I’ve lost count of how many iconic images there are of Princess Diana and Prince Charles at the Guards Polo Club which takes place in Windsor. It’s a relaxed event with tickets starting at £30 for the semi-final and £55 for the final. The tournament runs for three weeks with the final taking placed on Sunday 18 June. The Queen attends the final for which tickets can be purchased here.
To read more about Ascot, you can read my post here: A Smashing, Positively Dashing Day
The three main opera events of the season include Glynedbourne in East Sussex, Grange Park in Hampshire and Garsington in Buckinghamshire. What’s not to love about these country house operas? There’s dressing up, picnics in magical settings and some pretty decent opera, too. Look out for my Garsington opera post coming up next month.
RHS Hampton Court Flower Show
This is the world’s largest flower show and takes place in the grounds of Hampton Court Palace. It’s organised by the Royal Horticultural Society (of Chelsea fame) and it’s a newish member to the summer diary, having only launched in 1993. It’s on from the 4 to 9 July and you can get tickets here.
Henley Royal Regatta
This is the rowing event of the year, taking place in Henley-on-Thames (about an hour outside London). It lasts 5 days during the first weekend in July. The first regatta took place in 1839, and has been royally titled since Prince Albert became its royal patron in 1851. There are some strict dress codes if you are in the Stewards’ Enclosure. There is a 10-year waiting list to become a member of Henley Royal Regatta, but if you want to purchase a ticket to the Regatta (public) Enclosure you can do so here.
The Proms start in July but it’s the last night in September which closes out the London season. It’s a big fanfare of a night, with jingoistic British flag-waving and classical music. It’s the one day a year the British allow political correctness to fly out the window. The word ‘Prom’ originates from ‘promenade concert’, which refers to outdoor concerts in London’s pleasure gardens. The Royal Albert Hall has been home to The Proms since 1944, an eight-week classical music extravaganza. The last night of The Proms usually takes place on the second Saturday in September. Tickets for the last night are gold dust, but you can purchase tickets for most other evenings here.
What’s your favourite event in the London Summer Social Diary?