Beaton Exhibit Opens at NPG

The much-mentioned exhibition of Cecil Beaton’s photgraphic record of the Bright Young People of the 1920s opens today at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Waugh’s biographer Selina Hastings has written a review for the current issue of Tatler. It is not surprising that this opens with multiple references to Waugh:

‘Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties’ – this was how Evelyn Waugh depicted the era of the 1920s, when the elite of the younger generation, determined to throw off the gloom of the Great War, dedicated themselves to entertainment. As Waugh portrayed them in his novel Vile Bodies, the Bright Young People (or Bright Young Things, as others called them) were funny, frenzied and frivolous, capering from party to party. Among them, and, like Waugh, an astute recorder of the period, was the photographer Cecil Beaton, whose portraits of the era’s leading lights make up the dazzling cast of Bright Young Things, a new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. Beaton had been at prep school with Waugh, who bullied him cruelly. Beaton later described Waugh as ‘a very sinister character’, while Waugh pilloried Beaton in Decline and Fall as the society photographer David Lennox, who ‘emerged with little shrieks from an Edwardian electric brougham and made straight for the nearest looking-glass’.

The review goes on to describe several anecdotes involving Beaton’s connections with the BYPs, including this one not mentioned, so far as I can recall, in previous articles:

Known for his elegance and bitchery, accurately describing himself as ‘a scheming snob’, Beaton adored being at the centre of this wild and frivolous world. He made friends everywhere, and was even lured into bed by the ravishing, decadent Viscountess Castlerosse. Doris Castlerosse, always up for a challenge (‘Doris could make a corpse come,’ as Winston Churchill once reputedly remarked), had succeeded in seducing Beaton in a bedroom filled with tuberoses, an achievement that led to a brief affair, with the two of them seen together at house parties and about town. On one occasion at a fashionable restaurant, Lady Castlerosse’s husband noticed them at a nearby table, Beaton en maquillage and effeminately attired. ‘I never knew Doris was a lesbian!’ he observed.

There are also several photos of Beaton as well as what looks like a 1932 watercolor drawing he made of Tallulah Bankhead not included in any previous article.

The Guardian’s review of the exhibit by Sean O’Hagan also opens with a reference to Waugh:

In his novel Vile Bodies, published in 1930, Evelyn Waugh gleefully satirised the gilded lifestyles of the so-called Bright Young Things, whose antics were then regularly attracting the attention of gossip and society columnists in an otherwise colourless postwar Britain.

In one vignette, Waugh describes a party hosted by a character he calls Miss Mouse, whose father was bankrolling the revels. He writes: “Miss Mouse (in a very enterprising frock by Chéruit) sat on a chair with her eyes popping out of her head … She never could get used to so much excitement, never … It was too thrilling to see all that dull money her father had amassed, metamorphosed in this way into so much glitter and noise and so many bored young faces.”

Miss Mouse, her designer dress and her daddy’s money, popped into my head as I wandered through the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition Cecil Beaton’s Bright Young Things, in which Waugh briefly features…

The auction house Southeby’s, which is home to Beaton’s archives, posts on its website an interview with Robin Muir, who curated the exhibit. Among several insights, he includes this:

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.”

The digital magazine Londonist also opens its review of the exhibit by Will Noble with a reference to Waugh’s BYP novel:

“All that succession and repetition of massed humanity… Those vile bodies.” Evelyn Waugh, who features in a scowling, pint-clutching portrait by Henry Lamb at Cecil Beaton’s Bright Young Things, jealously (and brilliantly) scythed down Beaton and his set of artsy hipsters in the 1930 novel, Vile Bodies.

Finally, The Oldie in an article, which may be related to the Beaton exhibit, publishes a memoir by Ferdinand Mount of the artist Henry Lamb whose portrait of Waugh also features in the exhibit. It turns out that Lamb was Mount’s uncle and also painted a portrait of him which is photographed in The Oldie’s article. After discussing Lamb’s career, Mount concludes with his recollection of having his portrait painted:

In 1957 – the summer after my mother dies – Uncle Henry asks if he may paint my portrait, perhaps to cheer me up, just as he cheered her up with his long, chatty letters from Ireland when she was in hospital. There is no possibility of my parents paying for the portrait – and it is by portraits that he has managed to feed his family, a never-ending grind of academic luminaries in their robes and other notables, mostly with moustaches. […]

Now I am sitting in his high, chilly studio with the north light. […] I sit very still and proud in the cold air […] How strange it is to have someone looking at you so hard and so long and at nothing else in the world. What a lot of other people those light, watchful eyes have focused on over the years – Dorelia and Ottoline and Diana Mitford and Thomas Hardy and Evelyn Waugh and Neville Chamberlain, all gone now, but the gentle slap of the brush on the canvas goes on.

The painting itself seems almost like an anticlimax. How lugubrious I look in it, like a demoralised cod. That’s not because it’s a bad picture, or even because I am thinking about my mother; it’s my default expression. No, it’s a likeness all right.

The Cecil Beaton exhibit continues at the NPG until 7 June.

UPDATE (13 March 2020): The Times review by Rachel Campbell-Johnston was posted today. Here’s an excerpt:

[Cecil Beaton’s] images of the bright young things […] remain those that perhaps best define him. The blacksmith’s grandson discovered his aesthetic home in a society of artists, actors and aristocrats. The elegant strength of a singular vision, star-struck by beauty, circumscribed by snobbery, unfurls in the black-and-white prints around the walls.

Take time to read the accompanying texts. This show, which is staged with a feyly theatrical swagger, has all sorts of stories to tell. Among the cast are many possessed of artistic talent — Rex Whistler, Siegfried Sassoon, Tallulah Bankhead, Evelyn Waugh.

But perhaps it is the aristocrats, as impossibly beautiful as they are impeccably bred, who will most fascinate precisely because elsewhere they go all but unrecorded. The bit-part players and bystanders of history, long since faded into irrelevance, are brought back to the foreground to glint like the mayflies that they were in a momentary shaft of light.



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