Cecil Beaton’s Bright Young Things

The Bright Young Things at Wilsford, 1927, by Cecil Beaton. (© The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive)
An exhibit at London’s National Portrait Gallery explores the aesthetic 1920s set and the photographer who chronicled them.

‘Cecil Beaton’s Bright Young Things” is the new exhibition at London’s National Portrait Gallery. If anyone could love a museum and have only one love, I’d pick the NPG. Its spacious, elegant galleries are packed with portraits of Britain’s great and good, with a few devils, and over the years, depending on my mood and particular dilemmas, I would look at a portrait and ask, “What would he do?”

Depending on the dilemma, I’d ask Catherine Parr how she kept her head when all about were losing theirs. There’s a portrait of Balfour and Chamberlain, masters of Imperial Britain but at that moment slouching on the front bench of the House, listening to a gasbag. “How to suffer fools gladly,” I’ve asked them. Castlereagh when I want something dreamy to look at, Sargent’s Ellen Terry for panache, Alcock the aviator when I’m needing to feel less cautious, the Cromwell room when I channel my inner Puritan. Mrs. Thatcher, of course, on most points, but Harold Wilson, too. There’s a great portrait of him, a casual bust picture, in a cloud of smoke from his pipe. Sometimes we need to use smoke and mirrors to get what we want.

It’s an art museum and a history museum. This is its final season before it closes for a two-year renovation. After I saw “Bright Young Things,” I visited with the director to talk about the plan.

Cecil Beaton at Sandwich, early 1920s. (© The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive)

Cecil Beaton (1904–1980) is best known to Americans for his photograph portraits of the Royal Family and other worthies and as the set and costume designer of “My Fair Lady” and many other plays and films. He was one of the pioneers of fashion and celebrity photography, working for both the American and the British editions of Vogue. In the 1920s and 1930s, though, he was the chronicler — and a much-loved member — of a small, loose world of rich, creative young men and women called the “Bright Young Things.”

The anchor figures are, of course, Beaton, the aesthete and socialite Stephen Tennant (1906–1987), and the artist Rex Whistler (1905–1944). The Sitwells, Tallulah Bankhead, Diana Cooper, Adele Astaire, Evelyn Waugh, and Steven Runciman add lots of glitter, too, as well as heft. Duchesses, maharanis, designers, writers, and wastrels abound. Some, like Beaton and Tennant, were gay. Some, like Bankhead, were omnivorous. Many, like the Duff Coopers, were married for years. Some, like Whistler, were mysteries.

Nancy and Baba Beaton, 1926, by Cecil Beaton. (© The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive)

Like all NPG shows I’ve seen, it’s logically and beautifully arranged. It’s a big show, mostly photographs by Beaton, and takes us from the early 1920s to around 1940. The catalogue is exceptional. It treats the art in the show thoroughly but is also an encyclopedia of the time. I have some quibbles with the exhibition, not the book, which is great, but I’d certainly encourage people to see it.

Beaton grew up in Hampstead, the son of an affluent timber merchant. He was a prodigy, but of what was not clear to his proper Edwardian parents. He was smart but not academic, flunking at Oxford but much loved by his family. He found his purpose early, as a teenager photographing his sisters, experimenting with technique and props. At Oxford in the 1920s, he found a circle of talented, fun-loving, idiosyncratic peers and felt at home. For Beaton, a career and persona were born.

Self Portrait, 1935, by Rex Whistler. (National Portrait Gallery, London)

“The Bright Young Things at Wilsford” from 1927 sets the mood of the show and captures a part of the zeitgeist: breezy, high-spirited, clever, social, and leisured. Beaton, on the right, choreographed the scene at Wilsford Manor, the Arts & Crafts family home that Tennant, on the left, inherited in 1920. Beaton had many virtues as a photographer. He was a natural genius in assembling a pose. Edith Sitwell modeled as a medieval tomb sculpture in 1926, a conception that is pitch perfect for this critic and poet who looked like Elizabeth I and was as august as she was vinegary.

Edith Sitwell at Sussex Gardens, 1926, by Cecil Beaton. (© The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive)

In 1927, he had his first art show. Soon he was working for Vogue. Years later, Truman Capote called the look of Beaton’s work “lacquered luminosity.” Hair, dress, and skin shone. He touched up or toned down reality by adjusting camera settings. Beaton had the magic touch for focus. He certainly flattered his subjects. Tennant was arrestingly good-looking, no Marlboro Man but with a perfectly proportioned face, golden hair, and big blue eyes. “I couldn’t believe that ever, ever, for one moment I looked as beautiful,” he said.

Beaton photographed dozens of fantastic charity balls in the 1920s and 1930s. Maxine Freeman-Thomas attended the 1928 Dream of Fair Women Ball at Claridge’s dressed in a gown Beaton designed imagining Ascot in 2000. It does have a futuristic, space-travel look but misses the scent leading to Mary Quant and Alexander McQueen.

Maxine Freeman-Thomas dressed for Ascot in the year 2000 for the Dream of Fair Women Ball, 1928, by Cecil Beaton. (© The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive)

Her look, on the eve of the Great Depression and ten years after the First World War, seems recklessly silly. Here are my quibbles. I’m afraid I brought my default persona to the show, the flinty, laconic Methodist from rural Vermont, skeptical of anything that’s frilly or supercilious. I’d seen the Andy Warhol retrospective at the Tate the day before, too, which fomented my mood. I didn’t need to be reminded how wasted and lost were the young people in The Factory’s orbit, but there they were, stirring my ancillary contempt for hippie heroes and the “Big Chill” set. I first grafted this messy swirl of feeling on “Bright Young Things.” I realized I was wrong to think of them as rich, languid bums.

The exhibition was not as helpful as it could have been in proving me wrong, as much as I loved it. It’s a bit of a glamour show, with lots of beautiful people and exotic parties. I don’t much mind this, and the show is buoyant and will be broadly appealing. We live at a time when lots of people are gloomy – odd, since we also live in the most prosperous and peaceful time in human history — so “Bright Young Things” is a welcome tonic. I suppose I missed in the exhibition the complexity and seriousness the superb book provided.

In their day, the Bright Young Things weren’t universally adored. Waugh’s novels were especially coruscating. Vile Bodies, published in 1930, took them to task for a surfeit of conceit and a dearth of serious purpose. “There was a whole civilization to be saved and remade,” one of Waugh’s older characters, Lord Metroland, said, “and all they seem to do is play the fool.” They certainly partied a lot, and the premium was on constant movement. As Beaton wrote in his diaries, “we daren’t risk more than an hour or two in sleep, in case something happens while we weren’t there.”

There are two issues here. One is context. The Bright Young Things need to be seen in the context of the First World War, so Waugh’s pungent view of them needs some close consideration in the galleries. It‘s intelligently considered in the book. Did they have survivor’s guilt? The catalogue asks correctly whether their “elders were too dazed to restrain them.” The war, after all, was a singular horror, and the Bright Young Things were products of the Teens. Many lost brothers and fathers. Robin Muir, the perceptive curator, is on to something when he writes, “their heroes were gone, and the survivors could do nothing but fail to measure up.” Thus what seems like binge after binge.

The Silver Soap Suds (L to R: Baba Beaton, the Hon. Mrs Charles Baillie-Hamilton and Lady Bridget Poulett), 1930, by Cecil Beaton. ( © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive)

The second issue, and I was aware of this but not deeply aware and appreciative, is the tremendous achievements these young people made. Yes, some were drunks and suicides. Tennant retreated to Wilsford Manor, more recluse than ne’er-do-well, but he was a rare orchid best left in a hothouse. He was, incidentally, a loose inspiration for Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited. Diana Cooper and Edwina Mountbatten witnessed the big events of the Second World War and the decades after. Steven Runciman was the eminent historian of the Crusades. Daphne du Maurier, Gertrude Lawrence, and, of course, Tallulah, were oversized talents. Oliver Messel was a great designer and Beaton’s competitor. The Sitwells were no slouches in the intellectual world. Rex Whistler, killed at Normandy the day of the invasion, needs a show of his own. Beaton himself was a perfectionist and a hard-working photographer of big celebrities into the 1970s. It’s easy to lose track of how creative and accomplished these people were, and I’d rather know a lot about them than about the Bloomsbury cast of — mostly — sonorous boors.

My last quibble, and I have to emphasize that I loved the show and the book, concerns Beaton. The exhibition ends with a bunt. Beaton’s career capsized in 1938. Finishing the lettering in a decorative border for a double-page society piece he did for the American Vogue, Beaton added a barely visible line of text reading “Mr. R. Andrew’s Ball at the El Morocco brought out all the damn kikes in town.” The gossip journalist Walter Winchell got an advance copy and wrote a column about it, and the furor nearly ruined Beaton. Condé Nast personally fired him, and Vogue pulped all 130,000 copies. Beaton was persona non grata in the publishing business for years. But the royals hired him, he served in the Second World War, and eventually he rebuilt his career. The exhibition is too circumspect in treating this episode, probably to avoid “giving offense,” which seems to be the governing impulse for almost everything people do today. I think a deeper dive, which the catalogue provides, was needed in the galleries.

Nicholas Cullinan is the impressive director of the NPG. He and the trustees have developed a sound, smart plan to refurbish the museum’s 40 galleries and completely modernize the innards of the 1896 building. Jamie Fobert Architects is designing the project. It’s a £35 million program for which the money is nearly raised. The museum will close for two years but is, commendably, sending big parts of its collection on the road.

“First, do no harm” is my own basic guideline for a museum renovation, and, sadly, it’s a principle that many American museums miss. The NPG plan will restore galleries taken over the years for back-of-house use to public use. The director and I walked through some of these spaces. Visitors will enjoy them once they’re filled with art, as originally intended. The plan shows gratifying respect for the original features and finishes and restores elements that have been lost or hidden. This is not an addition, but there will be more display space and much-needed classroom space. The program also allows easier access to works in storage for teaching.

It’s a sensitively, intelligently conceived plan, and very necessary. It provides for the replacement of all the systems behind the walls. When I was a museum director, I did a renovation of a historic Charles Platt–designed Georgian Revival pile and was obsessive about addressing all infrastructure needs. The NPG has the same passion. Public amenities will be modern, to be sure, but the galleries will still feel both grand and welcoming.

The NPG is unusual. It’s a public place but also a home for portraits. A touch of domesticity and a human scale are important. At £35 million, the program is economically efficient in addition to promising beautiful and functional spaces for the next few generations. When doing renovations and expansions, American museum leaders sometimes go on ghastly, gluttonous ego trips and spending sprees — adventure travel that never ends well.

“Cecil Beaton’s Bright Young Things” is at the National Portrait Gallery, London, from March 12 to June 7, 2020.

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