Martin Downer's book
When Horace was a child, three terrible things happened to him. Firstly his father died. Secondly his mother hastily remarried. And thirdly a nasty bout of diphtheria left Horace hard of hearing. Not fully capable of connecting with the real world, he slipped more readily into an interior world of his own. At Eton, being in the classroom was a difficult and frustrating experience for Horace. And his anger deepened when deafness barred him from the army, his father’s choice of career.
Instead he went to Cambridge and decided to become a poet. Virginia Stephen Woolf's younger brother, Adrian Stephen, became a friend, playing a key role in Cole's jokes and in Cole's war on pomposity. The other famous sister, Vanessa Stephen Bell, thought Horace de Vere Cole was creepy.
Alas even his simplest jokes had a subversive intent, bullying rather than fun-filled. The author Martyn Downer depicted a mischievous and imaginative man with a malicious streak.
As an undergraduate at Cambridge in 1905, Cole and some larrikan friends put stage makeup on their faces and successfully pretended to be a delegation from Zanzibar. The mayor of Cambridge believed Cole was the Sultan of Zanzibar.
Then in 1910 he worked with his friends on the famous Dreadnought Hoax. This involved the group, in make-up and fancy dress costumes, fooling the Royal Navy into giving the group a guided tour of all areas of the Navy’s largest and most important warships. By posing as Abyssinian princes, they had clearly breached every security restriction in Britain.
In some circles, de Vere Cole and the others were heroes, challenging the existing power structures and questioning Britain’s militarism. The Dreadnought Hoax took place at time when there was huge public debate on the need for the vast spending of the military on these great engines of war. British citizens were living in horrendous conditions and the government did nothing, while endless public money was poured into the navy. After examining the photo of the hoaxers, one really does wonder what the British Navy was thinking. Yet there were no arrests.
Dreadnought Hoax, the Emperor of Abyssinia and his entourage. Cole was on the extreme right, 1906.
It may have been acceptable for a gentleman not to have a serious career during the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, but what could Cole do during WW1 and after the war had ended? Largely he could be found at Café Royal where the Bloomsbury Group and their friends liked to hang out. Artist Adrian Allinson was associated with members of the Bloomsbury Group during WW1, painting The Café Royal in 1916. In the painting below, Horace de Vere Cole was the second gent on the left of the painting (in a hat); Augustus John (no hat) had his back to the mirror and was facing the viewer.
Allinson wrote about Café Royal saying: "Amid the smoke haze that shed a bloom over its rococco ceiling and mirrored walls old friendships were maintained and new ones cemented. Across its marble topped tables many an argument on aesthetics was hammered out, a wit sharpened or an amorous adventure begun".
Cole also spent his time in elegant gentlemen’s clubs, inelegant music halls, aristocratic homes and sleazy hotels with very young women. He married Denise Daly, daughter of a military man, in 1918. This hopelessly conceived marriage ended in divorce in 1928. Nonetheless everything he did, good bad or downright stupid, made the front pages of newspapers.
In time it became clear that this compulsive hoaxer had alienated everyone in Britain, including those close to him. Even the painter Augustus John, who described travelling with Cole to France, was continually embarrassed by his antics eg knocking people’s hats off or feigning epilepsy in the street. John wrote: “Cole used to say he was at war with pomposity. Whatever his motives, I have never known a Frenchman to respond to this branch of humour with anything but disgust.”
Cafe Royal, painted by Adrian Allinson, 1916
Not famous as a poet, Cole died in poverty in France in 1936. He had pulled off many pranks during his years, some violent and some downright criminal. But he'd withered away the family fortune, and in the end we have to ask where did it all go? And what was his entire life worth?
In 1939 Mavis de Vere Cole, Cole’s widow and second wife, married again. This lovely young socialite and mistress of the painter Augustus John became Mrs Mortimer Wheeler, wife of the famous archeologist.