LONDON - Mere mention of Cecil Beaton and it is easy to be transported to the heady days of the roaring Twenties and Thirties, which he famously brought to life in his photography. Two exhibitions have just opened celebrating his wonderful imagery – at Wilton in Wiltshire, Jasper Conran has curated an exhibition of photographs from the Beaton archive at Sotheby's focusing on his lifelong association with the house and at the Salisbury Museum, there is a biographical show drawing on life at his two homes in Wiltshire, Ashcombe and Reddish.
What attracts less attention however, are the photographs of Beaton himself – during research of the period I came across a group of intriguing portraits of him by Curtis Moffat and Olivia Wyndham in the National Portrait Gallery which capture the bohemian mood of the 1920s just as well as one of his own snaps.
That he was photographed by Olivia Wyndham is significant – she was one of the original London 'it'' girls and party goers of the 1920s, famously arriving at Norman Hartnell’s 1928 circus party as a snake charmer with real snakes entwined around her body. A painting from her collection is coming up for sale in our Modern & Post-war British Art sale on 10th June and Beaton would certainly have approved: Marriage à la Mode, 1928 - 29 by Edward Burra.
With characteristic verve and impish intent, Burra borrowed his title Marriage à la Mode from William Hogarth’s moralising series of six paintings in the National Gallery, London. Hogarth's works recount the tale of Viscount Squanderfield who is married off to the daughter of a wealthy merchant only to come to a sticky end when he is murdered by her lover and she commits suicide when her lover is executed. Burra’s version is certainly more mode than moral: Burra's bride flaunts her cleavage seductively, gazing unflinchingly at the priest who in turn, stares unashamedly at the dapper groom, their eyes locked in a longing gaze. Marriage à la Mode or ménage à trois, Burra delights in every detail of the risqué narrative. As his best friend Billy Chappell recalled, in the 1920s 'sexual ambiguity was the rule, sexual promiscuity and sexual aberration the mode...’ The antithesis of marriage in the traditional sense, the painting is undoubtedly a celebration of Beaton, Burra and Wyndham's world and the era of the Bright Young Things.
Burra and Billy Chappell met Olivia Wyndham through Frederick Ashton and her parties were certainly infamous: “Well old sport Miss Wyndham gave a cocktail party last Friday and everybody was there the Kings Road & Sloane sq were lined with plainclothes detectives to guard Lady Dean Pauls priceless diamond ankle watch & the princess Haines pearls were the sinecure of all eyes till the eyes saw double which was very soon. from what I hear in my radio grammes they all went down like ninepins (and it was suspected that aphrodisiac had been added to the cocktails)...” (letter to Billy Chappell, 5th March 1929). Even Evelyn Waugh noted one of her soirées in his diary (which he doesn’t appear to have enjoyed): “It was not enough of an orgy. Masses of little lesbian tarts and toyboys. Only one fight...poor Hat [Brian Howard] looking like a tragedy queen...”
Olivia was particularly close to one of Burra’s best friends, Barbara Ker-Seymer who went to work for her as a photographer’s assistant and became one of her many lovers. Indeed, Olivia later engaged in her own Marriage à la Mode: having moved to New York in 1929, she became the fourth wife of Howland Spencer in 1930 whilst she was at the same time head over heels in love with the black American actress Edna Thomas. It was with Olivia and Edna (and remarkably, Edna’s husband Lloyd – another Marriage à la Mode) that Burra stayed when he first visited the city in 1933 and was catapulted into the heart of the Harlem renaissance. It is tantalizing to imagine that Olivia brought Marriage à la Mode with her to New York, a city that excited Burra beyond comparison as is evident by the pulsating energy of his Harlem pictures such as Striptease and Savoy Ballroom. In any case, Olivia later gave Barbara Ker-Seymour the picture and thence to her long term partner Barbara Roett.
Coming up at auction for the first time, Marriage à la Mode is on view in London today (Friday 9-4.30 pm), Sunday (12-5 pm), Monday (9-4.30 pm) and Tuesday (9-4 pm).