Blog, Exhibitions

Cecile Beaton’s Bright Young Things

National Portrait Gallery, London 12 March-7 June 2020

Cecile Beaton and Stephen Tennant by Maurice Beck and Helen Macgregor 1927

As an antidote to Brexit, the Coronavirus and falling stock market, it was such a pleasure to visit this beautiful exhibition of, rarely seen, prints by renowned photographer Cecil Beaton. The glamorous and stylish ‘Bright Young Things’ of the twenties and thirties are seen through his eyes.

Paula Gellibrand, Marquesa de Casa Maury by Cecil Beaton 1928

         The exhibition presents the leading cast of the movers and shakers of the time. Many of them were to help refine his remarkable photographic style. Artists and friends Rex Whistler  and Stephen Tennant, set and costume designer Oliver Messel, composer William Walton, modernist poets, Iris Tree and Nancy Cunard, glamorous socialites Edwina Mountbatten and Diana Guiness (née Mitford), actresses and anglophiles Tallulah Bankhead and Anna May Wong, among many others.

The Silver Soap Suds by Cecil Beaton 1930

Brought to vivid life, by the images, each of them has a story to tell. There are the slightly less well known too-style Icons Paula Gellibrand, the Marquesa de Casa poet Brian Howard, part model for Brideshead Revisited’s mannered ‘Anthony Blanche’, ballet dancer Tilly Losch and Dolly Wilde Oscar’s equally flambouyant neice. Also featured are those of an older generation, who gave Beaton’s career early impetus: outspoken poet and critic Edith Sitwell, the famously witty social figure Lady Diana Cooper, artist and Irish patriot Hazel, Lady Lavery, and the extraordinary bejewelled Lady Alexander, whose husband produced Oscar Wilde’s comedies and who became a patron of Beaton’s.

Edith Sitwell at Sussex Gardens by Cecil Beaton 1926

This show charts Beaton’s transformation from middle-class suburban schoolboy to glittering society figure and the unrivalled star of Vogue. In addition to Beaton’s own portraits, the exhibition also features paintings by friends and artists including Rex Whistler, Henry Lamb, and Augustus John.

Cecil Beaton at Sandwich early 19202

         Beaton’s own life and relationship with the ‘Bright Young Things’ is woven into the exhibition. He was born in 1904 during the reign of Edward VII. His father was a timber merchant, and by the time of his late boyhood the business was failing  and the family had to downsize. Beaton very aware of his place in society hated belonging to a dull humdrum middle class family and wanted to be famous and successful with all the trappings that went with that life style.

Anna May Wong by Cecil Beaton 1929

His love of theatre goes back to the days when as a young boy he would crawl into his mother’s bed and look at the images of Hollywood stars in her glamour magazines. The famous racing scene in ‘My Fair Lady’ takes one back to the glamour of the Edwardian era. Socially avaricious, Cecil was a much photographed figure, a celebrity in his own right.

Nancy and Baba Beaton by Cecil Beaton 1926

Beaton’s transformation from middle-class suburban schoolboy to glittering society figure and the unrivalled star of Vogue, revealed a social mobility unthinkable before the Great War. He used his artistic skills, his ambition and his larger-than-life personality to become part of a world that he would not surely have joined as a right. Throughout the twenties and thirties his photographs place his friends and heroes under perceptive, colourful and sympathetic scrutiny.

The Bright Young Things at Wilsford by Cecil Beaton 1927

         The exhibition shows glimpses from the high spirited revels at country house weekends, including a rare vintage print of the leading lights dressed as eighteenth-century shepherds and shepherdesses on the bridge at Wilsford Manor, regarded now as the quintessential depiction of The Bright Young Things.

Maxine Freeman-Thomas dressed for Ascot in the year 2000 for the Dream of Fair Women Ball by Cecil Beaton

Robin Muir, Curator of Cecil Beaton’s Bright Young Things said: ‘The Exhibition brings to life a deliriously eccentric, glamorous and creative ere of British Cultural life, combining High Society and the avant-garde, artists and writers, socialites and partygoers, all set against the rhythms of the Jazz Age”

Oliver Messel in his costume for Paris in Helen! by Cecil Beaton 1932

To sum up the exhibition, and his own life, in the words of Cecil Beaton

‘I don’t want people to know me as I really am but who I’m trying to pretend to be.’

Go and see this, it is a fabulous exhibition in a lovely gallery. The National Portrait Gallery is closing this June for three years as it undergoes a £35.5 million refurbishment.