Artists’ Balls were held in Sydney from the late 19th century, including one held at the Garden Palace in 1881, and others held at the Paddington Town Hall in the 1890s.
The concept and tradition of Artists’ Balls was imported from Paris and London. The balls tended to be fund-raisers, and attracted Bohemians as well as the middle classes and the elites. For example, the Artists’ Balls held at the Paddington Town Hall in the 1890s raised money for the Art Union.
It was the Artists’ Balls held after World War 1 that signalled the dawning of the new modern and permissive ‘Jazz’ age. The joie de vivre of this party and others that followed throughout the 1920s was a ‘carnivalesque’ response to the tragedy of war.
The first post-war Artists’ Ball was held at Sydney Town Hall on 21 August 1922. It raised money for a pottery workshop at Redfern for soldiers maimed in the war.
It provoked controversy because of the alleged ‘unseemly conduct’ of those who attended. A cheeky scamp added whisky to the table wine, which was ‘partaken of by many ladies with the result that unseemly and improper conduct followed, continuing until daybreak. A lively discussion took place [by the Sydney Council] regarding the unseemliness of some of the costumes worn, also in regard to the disorderly conduct.’ There was a near riot at the 1924 ball which resulted in 11 casualties and a raid by the police. Criticisms of the debaucherous and wanton behaviour, particularly of the women, some who were too drunk to move, led to a ban on alcohol although some of the naughtier guests continued to smuggle it in on the sly.
Throughout the 1920s, the Artists’ Balls at the Sydney Town Hall attracted an eclectic crowd of up to 2000 people, including artists, writers, muses, models, cartoonists, and later, radio personalities. The balls usually had vice-regal patronage: the 1928 Artists’ Ball, for example, was attended by the Governor of NSW. The Centennial Hall was richly decorated with streamers, flowers and artworks, everyone who attended wore elaborate themed fancy dress costumes.
In the late 1930s, the Artists’ Balls moved to the Trocadero. They became an annual fixture, and a highlight of Sydney’s society calendar. Crowds thronged outside to watch the guests arriving in their fancy costumes. The balls continued through to the 1980s, having moved to a new venue: the Cell Block Theatre at the National Art School. Although they have recently been revived, they probably won’t match the spectacle of the 1922 Artists’ Ball!