Bright Young People Re-illuminated

There are several stories in the press about the “Bright Young People” inspired by next Thursday’s opening of the Cecil Beaton exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery mentioned in several previous posts. The most interesting of these is by Hugo Vickers in the Daily Telegraph. He begins by explaining that he brings to the table his authorized biography of Beaton. For this, he interviewed Beaton in January 1980 just a few days before he died. Vickers describes his interviews of several other surviving BYPs. These include Stephen Tennant, Loelia Ponsonby, Steven Runciman, Anne Messel and, most notably, the two Jungman sisters. According to Vickers:

They were not always frivolous. During the Second World War, Zita drove a Polish ambulance and was declared “missing” for a while; in May 1940, she was one of the last to leave Le Havre. Teresa had two small children but also did as much as she could for the war effort.

It was an extraordinary experience for me when, in December 1987, the two sisters arrived in a little Mini to collect me from a hotel and drive me to Leixlip Castle, Co Kildare, and yet more extraordinary when, in 2004, I suggested they appear in a television documentary to mark Beaton’s centenary. We had been told not to film Zita asleep and this was a problem. She was 100, and awoke only from time to time. (Every day she watched The Sound of Music, though only parts of it, as she dozed off intermittently.)

Meanwhile, Teresa, a mere stripling of 96, had a deep reluctance to be filmed, or quoted in any way, but her inherent good manners meant that she relented, and stories emerged of the costumes that would be laid out [by Stephen Tennant] on the bed at Wilsford for the next photographic session. In their heyday they had staged treasure hunts; used their connections to arrange a fake edition of the Evening Standard and had Hovis loaves baked to order with clues inside. Zita even attempted to stay overnight in the chamber of horrors at Madame Tussaud’s. But the two sisters disappeared from public view in the Thirties, living together in perfect harmony from 1947 to the end, fortified by their Catholic faith. You could imagine the one saying to the other: “Stop me if I told you this before…”

We can only hope that one of the TV networks will take advantage of the exhibition to rerun the 2004 documentary in which Vickers mentions he participated. His 1985 biography of Beaton is scheduled for republication later this year in the USA. In the UK, a new edition was published last week and is currently available.

Another interesting article is that of Robin Muir in the Financial Times. He is curator of the Beaton exhibit. Like Vickers, he came into contact with some of the “atoms of the past” still associated with BYP survivors in the 1980s. This is when we worked as a junior member of staff in the offices of Vogue magazine. He recalls being given letters to drop in the mail by Peter Coats, one of the more snooty “atoms” still working (he was at House & Gardens, one of the other magazines located in the Vogue offices). On the top of the pile arranged in order of social importance was usually one addressed to “Lady Lindsay”. Muir then explains her relevance to the Beaton exhibit:

I found out that Lady Lindsay had been, half a century before, Loelia, Duchess of Westminster, married to the fabulously wealthy Hugh “Bendor” Grosvenor, 2nd Duke of Westminster, and the first to be christened the “Brightest of the Bright Young Things” (when she tired of it, the crown passed to her cousin Elizabeth Ponsonby). A photograph of her by Cecil Beaton was kept in Vogue’s archives, dating from 1930, the year of her marriage. If she looked a little uneasy, there were good reasons, not least because the tiara atop her immaculately shingled head was colossal. The Westminster “halo” tiara was fashioned by Lacloche in the oriental “bandeau” style to include the Arcot diamonds, once belonging to Queen Charlotte, consort to George III. “Our most beautiful of duchesses”, sighed Vogue. And, as it would transpire, one of our most unhappy.[…]

Beaton was 26 when he photographed the new Duchess of Westminster in 1930 – the year that saw both the publication of his first book, The Book of Beauty, in which he elevated to the pantheon those he considered worthy, and an exhibition in Mayfair that drew in London society. The duchess was noted in the book and made the cut in the show on account of her “raven’s wing shingle and magnolia complexion” […]

Many others from The Book of Beauty find a place in the show, including Margot, Countess of Oxford and Asquith, an early patron. Evelyn Waugh enjoyed lampooning Beaton’s portrait of Margot in Decline and Fall(1928), but he had even more fun lampooning Beaton himself, as the society photographer David Lennox, who emits “little shrieks” and makes “straight for the nearest looking glass”. Beaton and Waugh had never got on since prep school.

There are similar although somewhat less detailed stories in the Daily Mail (“The kids that make the 1920s roar”) and the Independent (“Power, Privilege and Glamour in 1920s London”). Most of the articles are liberally illustrated with photos from the exhibition. After opening on Thursday at the National Portrait Gallery, Trafalgar Square, the exhibit will continue through 7 June.


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