by Roderick Conway Morris

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Shining a light on gilded youth

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 3 April 2020
The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive
Tallulah Bankhead with Balloons by Cecil Beaton, 1927



'I have tried to make my work as fantastic, whimsical and amusing as possible. In photography I do not believe in taking people as they are. There is not much interest in a mere photograph. I design my backgrounds and dresses and pose the subjects myself. That raises the photograph out of the ordinary,' declared Cecil Beaton at the time of his first exhibition in London in 1927.

By then he had established himself with remarkable rapidity as the photographer par excellence of the young, the beautiful and the doomed of the capital's social scene whose publicly conducted pursuit of pleasure in a hectic, hedonistic round of parties and entertainments was providing an endless stream of juicy copy for Fleet Street's gossip columns and the society pages of weekly and monthly magazines.

Yet Beaton was meanwhile casting his net wider, not only creating images of contemporary beauties, film stars, aristocrats and socialites through his imaginative and highly stage-managed portraits, but also recording a more extensive range of up-and-coming actors, dancers, composers, artists, writers and eccentrics.

These first years of the photographer's long and productive career are now the subject of a splendid book, 'Cecil Beaton's Bright Young Things', written by Robin Muir.

Beaton was born in 1904 in Hampstead, the son of a prosperous timber merchant, but early on formed an 'ambition to break out of the anonymity of a nice, ordinary, middle-class family'. He was given a Box Brownie camera for Christmas at the age of ten, superseded on his twelve birthday by a folding Kodak A3 with which he was to take almost all his early images, even those for Vogue magazine.

His first subjects, inevitably, were his family but his requirements, even at this precocious stage, for elaborate mises-en-scène proved a problem. As he admitted: 'It was often difficult to force them to pose. My mother strongly objected, in the middle of a busy morning, to be made to put on full evening dress.'

Fortunately, he had two pretty older sisters, Nancy and Baba who, in effect, became their annoying little brother's first protegées. He was determined to launch them (and their promoter) into Society and his alluring images of them succeeded in transforming these tradesman's daughters into fashionable models and debutantes.

Cecil's artful management of his sisters' public personae reached a climax in 1933 when the elder of the two, Nancy, married the baronet Sir Hugh Smiley at St Margaret's, Westminster, the whole event being lavishly designed and choreographed by Beaton, who made sure through his myriad media contacts that the event received the maximum national, and even international, coverage.

In 1922, after a public school education at Harrow, Beaton went up to Cambridge, where he recruited the first model from outside his family, the future historian Steven Runciman. Beaton avoided lectures but plunged himself into the activities of the University's theatrical societies. The Marlowe Society's productions were then still all male and a reviewer went so far as to venture that Beaton's performance in Thackeray's 'The Rose and The Ring', in which Runciman played his mother, established Cecil as 'one of our greatest living actresses'. He was miffed not to get the title role in Webster's 'The Duchess of Malfi', but one of his production photos made it into Vogue with a name credit - and within three years the magazine had put him under contract.

Cambridge also gave Beaton the opportunity to realize his first full-scale theatrical designs. His black-and-white sets and costumes for Pirandello's 'Henry IV' - in the play's English première - would be revisited decades later, in the most memorable costume designs of his entire career, for the stage version of 'My Fair Lady' in 1956 and the film of 1964. These were partly inspired by his mother's Ascot dresses, the postcards of Edwardian theatre and opera divas he avidly collected as a boy, and the 'Black Ascot' of 1910, following the death of Edward VII. 'A myriad of childhood impressions were paying dividends,' as he later put it, 'haphazard pieces of the jigsaw puzzle of memory suddenly started sorting themselves out.'

Having failed to obtain a degree, Beaton came down to London, where his despairing father had secured him a post in the cement business. But after a trip to Venice where he met Diaghilev, and with introductions to arty types such as Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell Sitwell, Beaton was soon expertly navigating the flow of the metropolitan social scene, with its endless round of parties, pageants, charity balls and visits to the theatre and the opera.

Another ambitious young beast on the block, Evelyn Waugh, was soon to become a chronicler in his novels of the antics of the Bright Young Things. A semi-detached participant, Waugh described their activities with sardonic relish: 'Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St John's Wood, parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and night clubs, in windmills and swimming baths…all that succession and repetition of massed humanity…Those vile bodies.'

Beaton had been at Heath Mount Preparatory School in Hampstead with Waugh, by whom he had been mercilessly bullied, leading to a life-long antipathy between them. By the time 'Vile Bodies' was published in 1930, Waugh had already satirized Beaton as the epicene photographer David Lennox in his first novel 'Decline and Fall'. In this book, he parodied Beaton's interior designs in his account of the grotesque décor for the character Margot Beste-Chetwynde's Sports Room, and sent up Beaton's photography in his description of Lennox's portraits of Margot: 'two eloquent photographs of the back of her head and one of the reflection of her hands in a bowl of ink' - the former being a joke at the expense of Beaton's unusually posed Vogue image of Margot, Countess of Oxford and Asquith, inspired by a famous back-view picture of Lily Langtry by Henry van der Veyde.

However, Beaton unknowingly stored up his revenge in the early 1930s when Waugh came over with friends to the photographer's country house, Ashcombe in Wiltshire. Later in life, Waugh became insufferably pompous and inclined to ape the upper classes, to which he no more belonged by birth than Beaton, uttering such ludicrous platitudes as 'no gentleman looks out of a window'. Beaton had managed to snap a now historic image of the author on his visit to Ashcombe - looking out of a window.

'Vile Bodies' was reprinted 11 times within the year of its first publication, but 1930 was also the year that Beaton had the satisfaction of publishing his own first tome, 'The Book of Beauty', a collection of photographs, drawings and hymns of praise to his most admired sitters (the first of almost fifty books).

Robin Muir's book contains over 200 images, spanning the 1920s and '30s. Their variety is now one of their most striking features. Beaton's style was all but inimitable, taking in a host of inspirations from Edwardian fashion plates and contemporary postcards of stars of the epoch, to Man Ray's surrealist images and Baroque, Rococo and Cubist paintings.

Writing in 1928 in the Evening News on 'The Women of the Future', Beaton speculated: 'It will be a race of robot-looking women, uncaring and unreal, but perfectly lovely, for money will be able to buy beauty scientifically' - an eerily prescient vision.

Many of Beaton's portraits of then celebrity subjects would now be mere images of forgotten figures but for his contemporary notes on them, supplemented by Robin Muir's assiduous research, which provide a great deal of additional information and entertainment. The photographer's comments can be no less comic than Evelyn Waugh's more barbed fictional descriptions.

Beaton pronounced Paula Gellibrand, Marquesa de Casa Mauray, for example, 'the first living Modigliani I ever saw'. He included her in his 'Book of Beauty', in a glittering 'fish-scale' dress against a sequinned curtain, writing: 'Her small mouth, a butterfly stamped upon her face, looks completely useless except for kissing crucifixes and flowers…She smokes cigarettes lazily, creating the effect that the exertion of the next puff would kill her.'

The photographer seemed to be leading a charmed life as the 1930s drew to a close, but his relentless work schedule, as he criss-crossed the Atlantic, fulfilling an avalanche of commissions, was taking its toll. Never seduced by drink or drugs, which led to the demise of a number of Beaton's fast-living subjects, he was nonetheless reaching a fever pitch of over-activity.

As he recalled years later: 'My pictures became more and more rococo and surrealist…Society women as well as mannequins were photographed in the most flamboyant poses…Backgrounds were equally exaggerated and often tasteless…Christmas paper chains were garlanded around model's shoulders, and wooden doves, enormous paper flowers from Mexico, Chinese lanterns, doilies and cutlet frills, fly whisks, sporrans, eggbeaters or stars of all shapes found their way into our hysterical and highly ridiculous pictures.'

In January 1938, while finishing off a decorative border for a double-page spread for a society piece, he added in minute lettering a derogatory reference to Jews at a ball at El Morocco. It was spotted and all hell broke loose. Condé Nast pulped 130,000 copies of the magazine and Beaton was sacked by Vogue on both sides of the Atlantic. The photographer could never explain afterwards what had possessed him. He had no record of anti-semitism, either before or after this incident, and some of his many Jewish friends defended him. But he became a pariah overnight, his other work evaporating, such as a commission for the costumes for an Orson Welles production of 'Henry IV'. The doors of Hollywood also slammed shut to him.

The scandal dogged him even into the post-war years. He was partially rescued in 1939, when Queen Elizabeth invited him to Buckingham Palace to take photographs of the family, the beginning of a new career as a royal photographer. But his true redemption came with the war when he offered his services to the Ministry of Information. He threw himself into this new task with his customary energy, travelling the world and providing not only morale-boosting pictures but also some of the most valuable historic images of the ordinary men and women who took part in the conflict.

Cecil Beaton's Bright Young Things by Robin Muir, National Portrait Gallery (£35)

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023