A s new exhibition Cecil Beaton's Bright Young Things opens at the National Portrait Gallery on 12 March, Joanna Ling interviews curator Robin Muir.
Cecil Beaton’s career spanned an extraordinary six decades of the 20th century. You have chosen to concentrate on his work before the Second World War. What drew you to this particular period and do you think it is his most defining era?
"Most Beaton shows – with one or two glorious exceptions such as Theatre of War at the IWM and Cecil Beaton’s New York at MoCoNY, or Sir Roy Strong’s perceptive observations on Beaton’s royal pictures – tend to be career long retrospectives and understandably so. What an extraordinary career it was. If we take his contribution to Vogue alone, he contributes his first photograph in 1924 and his last pictures appear in the British and French editions in 1979, around six months before his death. When you consider that he wasn’t just a portrait and fashion photographer for Vogue, but an illustrator and caricaturist, a perceptive features writer, a stylist, a style consultant, a writer and, of course, as he was able to give the magazine a first glimpse at his royal pictures and war photographs, you begin to see how vital he was. And we haven’t gone into his set or costumes for plays and films, his three Oscars, nor his dairies, which are, in my opinion, far more self aware, honest and perceptive than any of that period.
My initial reaction to looking over Cecil’s work as a whole was: 'Where does it all come from? What’s the impetus for him as an artist? How did it begin?' And with any artists, I find, it’s that period when he or she is starting out – their formative years – that holds the most interest. In Cecil’s case it’s him wondering: 'What he could do with and for this medium of photography? How will it enable me to become the creative entity I desperately want to be? But also what can this process do for me? Can I harness it to make me famous?'"
What has become your favourite photograph in the exhibition?
"I was really pleased to have discovered, in the Cecil Beaton Archive at Sotheby’s, a vintage print of the Bright Young Things on the Bridge at Wilsford Manor the Tennant family home in Wiltshire, from 1927. We assume it to be Cecil’s own – the one he kept for himself, slightly dog-eared, giving it the appearance of being a lucky survivor, a relic of the past. This en plein air shot of the leading players, dressed as shepherds and shepherdesses, is probably the single image that defines them. Emulating the stylised, pastoral paintings of Nicolas Lancret, as well as Antoine Watteau and Jean-Honoré Fragonard, this group of rococo neo-Arcadians comprised Zita Jungman, Georgia Sitwell, their host at Wilsford, Stephen Tennant, Cecil himself and, appearing the least comfortable in knee-breeches and ruffled shirts, Rex Whistler and William Walton. The latter is a conspicuously masculine presence, self-conscious among the painted faces of the ersatz shepherds and shepherdesses."
Beaton was a renaissance man who led a rich and varied life. Do you think this is why he retains his popularity?
"Yes. The sheer range and quality of what Cecil produces is extraordinary; there is never – or only occasionally – a dip in quality. There is always something new to discover about him and I suspect more interest will be paid to specific aspects of his life and career. There needs to be a fresh look at his set and stage designs, for example, which started during his school and Cambridge days and never really left him. He ranks alongside Oliver Messel and Rex Whistler as the designers ne plus ultra of his day. Andrew Ginger’s book, Cecil Beaton: An Interior Life, which is built around but expands out from Cecil’s tastes in interior design is a good case in point, so too Benjamin Wilde’s treatise on Cecil and his personal wardrobe.
So many facets to Cecil Beaton, so much left to explore. I’ve just talked to a class of fashion journalism students from St Martin’s – they are thrilled and fascinated to be studying him in various aspects. You can’t write about fashion or fashion photography now without having a solid grounding in fashion and fashion photography then. And Cecil, whose oeuvre is a roll call of cultural life of the last century, is the best place to start."
What is the most unexpected thing you have discovered about Beaton during your research?
"There are many things. Firstly just how accomplished and adept he was at an early age -- that comes as a revelation. He’s able to wield a Box Brownie camera at ten years old, a Kodak folding A3 at twelve and to make extremely good pictures. In fact, the majority of the pictures in this show are taken on the latter – still a primitive piece of machinery – and which he uses right up to and including his first years with Vogue. His mastery of lighting is striking too, and we have to remember that he’s not using a studio with its attendant battery of lights and backdrops, but his parents’ drawing room, and building stage sets out of curtain poles, broomsticks, cushions and found drapery. The results are remarkably refined.
I also like the way that everybody paid. From the outset, no matter how rich, titled, charming or influential or how much you might further his nascent career, you paid. And when he makes it in America, he’s charging what would have been considered astronomical sums for a sitting. He works hard from the start too: ‘Long after the rest of the household was asleep, I would work by the light of an electric bulb, swathed in an old red shirt, awaiting the appearance of one perfect print.’ I often wonder if his relentless and punishing work schedule contributed to his stroke and relatively early death at 74.
I’ve also had to re-evaluate my overriding preconception of Cecil as vain, self-centred and someone with overreaching ambition. Actually, he’s all those things, but at heart there is a moral centre to him. He could be a terrible snob and an unthinking friend, but he is, in the end, immensely loyal to those from the past. His grief at Rex Whistler's death is profound. Unexpectedly moving too, is the help he gives to less fortunate friends, such as the painter Francis Rose and Margot, Countess of Oxford and Asquith, an early patron to whom he is loyal and who appears to have driven away most of her close circle late in life.
I admire the self-lacerating honesty he displays in his own account of his hopeless love affair with Peter Watson, the love of his life. There is a bravery and an honesty in his admitting to feelings that other diarists of the time would not remotely consider. In short, he is more human than his grating florid faux cut-glass accent tends to convey."
Beaton was desperate to escape the strictures of his middle class upbringing. How relevant do you think this was to his early career?
"Cecil’s overriding impulsion is to escape what he perceives, rightly or wrongly, as a drab, routine, humdrum middle class existence. He glimpses another life out there, populated by young gilded, financially secure aristocrats who seem to be having a lot more fun than he is. And it’s a curiously democratising world. Even if not born to it, you can enter it by dint of special talent like Cecil and also Evelyn Waugh. And, I guess, if Cecil had been born to it, he would not have been so perceptive of it. His is an outsider’s eye and he brings a different perspective to this brave, new and exciting world. He says to his diary: ‘My ambition to break out of the anonymity of a nice, ordinary, middle class family certainly manifested itself in other tiresome outward forms; one of which was the pleasure I took in surprising, or even shocking people by the inimitable way in which I adorned myself.’ There was nothing worse in Cecil’s eyes than to smell faintly of ‘trade’, no matter how Cecil might sanitise it by reinventing himself or his antecedents (he pretended he was descended from the aristocratic, Scots king-making Beatons – an entirely different family). As it turned out, meritocrats like him were rewarded for their talents with entrée to the magic circle, but he was always acutely aware of where he came from."
Beaton’s sense of the theatrical meant - by his own admission - that sometimes the backgrounds of his photographs were more important than the sitters themselves. Do you think that this is particularly true of his pre-war work?
"Yes, and this is reflected in the show. Cecil was faced with a choice early on – should he persevere with the camera and see if it brings him the fame, fortune and social elevation that he craves? Or should he instead revert to what constituted his first taste of success – designing sets and costumes? His student days were defined by the outstanding reviews he received – from the national as well as local press – for his eye-catching designs for undergraduate theatrical productions. His first exhibition is not of photographs but of sketches for costume design. The backdrops he creates for his subsequent photographs follow that instinct.
And this has a bold effect on his work. In his daring and unexpected use of pattern, line and pose, Cecil’s studio compositions in this period reflect the extravagant and high-spirited characters that sit for him. His homespun approach develops into a more knowingly sophisticated aesthetic, as sensational as the attention seeking antics, pranks and japes of his sitters. He quickly establishes a particular photographic style: a marriage of Edwardian stage portraiture with emerging European surrealism, filtered through a determinedly English sensibility, one that revered, in particular, the modes and gestures of the upper classes and the allure of artificiality. He relied back then, he said later, on ‘a recklessness of style’."
Beaton met and photographed many exotic and fascinating people. Did anyone particularly stand out for you when you were choosing images for the exhibition?
"The more you delve into the back stories of the Bright Young Things, the more extraordinary they become. For all the joie de vivre, there is in many cases an underlying desperation, and the Beaton circle perhaps has more than its fair share of heroic failures and outright casualties: many die young. I was transfixed by Dorothy ‘Dolly’ Wilde, Oscar’s niece, whom Cecil meets for the first time on a train to the Wiltshire home of Stephen Tennant, where both attend a weekend house party. Cecil is enraptured: ‘Dolly, never expecting that she might have inherited her uncle’s wit, continually managed to say clever, funny things as if by a fluke. Her eyes widened with astonishment at each bon mot, and she exploded as heartily as anyone in the ensuing laughter.’
Dolly was the last to carry the Wilde name, one that still sent a frisson down the collective spine of polite society. Dorothy was ostensibly a writer though she left nothing behind, except some translation and sparkling letters written to friends. She was a glittering ornament in Paris, at the fabled salon of Nathalie Barney, which attracted a galaxy of writers and belles-lettristes, Modernists, Symbolists and beyond, from T.S Elliot to Gertrude Stein, from André Gide to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Jean Cocteau, and Colette. Here, as one visitor said, ‘Dolly shone at her brightest’. After short lifetime of being vivacious and clever and never knowingly underwhelming, Dolly died in 1941 in wartime London in a serviced block in Belgravia, still an addict to heroin, alcohol and sleeping draughts."
Beaton’s Wiltshire home Ashcombe was the backdrop to much of his work and play. You chose to finish the exhibition with his infamous Fete Champêtre held there in 1937. Was this an important moment in the photographer’s life?
"Ashcombe was the rock and foundation to his ambitions in the 1930s, providing a safe harbour in his increasingly hectic work and social life. ‘I was almost numbed by my first encounter with the house,’ he wrote. ‘It was as if I had been touched on the head by some magic wand.’ He was idyllically happy there and his tenure culminated in the personal triumph of a magnificent summer party – a fete champêtre in 1937 – which saw Cecil through four costume changes as ringleader-designer-actor-host, the auteur of his own theatrical fantasy spectacle. At the height of his success, internationally known and hugely in demand, it was time to celebrate his fame. The auspices for such a celebration were favourable: in May, the nation had basked in the glow of George VI’s coronation. Meanwhile, Beaton had secured for himself further advancement, possibly precarious(!), as official photographer to the wedding of the new King’s brother, the abdicated Edward, Duke of Windsor to Wallis Simpson.
Beaton's grand party, for around 300 guests, would take place outdoors on 10 July in the form of an Arcadian revelry devised by the French court of the 18th century, and played out in the genre paintings of Watteau, Nattier and Lancret. Though it sought to emulate the simpler delights of a peasant country feast, it was a contrived affair. Recognising the stylish fiction implicit in such an enterprise, Cecil called his celebration, ‘a perversely sophisticated piece of rusticity.’ It was, as Beaton’s biographer Andrew Ginger has put it, ‘typical of Cecil to think in complex pictorial and art historical terms for his event’. It was also typical of him to think in terms of highly-stylised make-believe.
Cecil spent weeks on the build up to the en plein air extravaganza, and the transformation of his rural retreat into a heart-stopping idyll. It was, for Cecil, a theatrical performance into which he cast himself as director, designer and participant. The attention to detail was meticulous. As well as watercolours of the elaborate decorative schemes envisaged for house and studio, inside and out, he made drawings of costumes he required friends and neighbours to wear. The efforts on the part of the guests were as heroic as the labours of the host. The party was a triumph: it lasted until well after dawn, and long in the memory of the revellers."
The show celebrates the “roaring” 1920s and 1930s when Beaton was a major chronicler of, and participant in, the antics of the Bright Young Things. As we enter the new 20s, what do you think the two decades have in common and how do you think that Beaton would have fared in our 21st century world?
"I’m unsure, a century on, whether there is that much in common. A couple of observations: this show came about via Instagram because I was posting a lot of BYT photographs and they turned out to be mostly by Cecil. The Deputy Director of the National Portrait Gallery saw what I was doing and asked if we could turn it into a show. I rather like the idea of a determinedly black and white photographer – and we are going for vintage prints in this show as far as we can, with all the tears and patina and age – coming to the Gallery once again via a digital/social media platform.
What would Cecil think of Instagram? I think, as a self-taught photographer from a background he consider unprivileged, who, right at the very start, had little practical help on the way up apart from his own determination, propensity for hard work and an ‘eye’, would applaud the ‘democratising’ nature of Instagram. I suppose, as Cecil’s authorized biographer Hugo Vickers has neatly observed, doing this exhibition now is a bit like what Cecil did with Lady Windermere’s Fan in 1946. He knew people had had a grim time of it and wanted to allow them to wallow in luxury. In our promised Brave New World, post-Brexit, end-of-austerity, perhaps it’s timely to re-invoke the gaiety of the 20s…and have some fun again."