There is a beautiful exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, sadly sitting behind closed doors. A portal to a vanished world of beauty and elegance, style and decadence. Cecil Beaton’s Bright Young Things covers the time from Beaton’s earliest photographic efforts as a young boy, through the era of the Bright Young Things in the 1920s and 1930s, right up until WWII. Beaton bridges classes and generations, transforming those around him as well as himself in the process.
In 1923, when he was 19, Cecil Beaton (b.1904 – 1980) wrote, I don’t want people to know me as I really am, but as I am trying and pretending to be. Beaton’s own position as insider/outsider provides a unique viewpoint, and one that has been shared through diaries, columns, books, paintings, drawings, costumes and stage designs. And all this alongside a photographic career spanning six decades.
He once wrote, I have tried to make my work as fantastic, whimsical and amusing as possible. In photography, I don’t believe in taking people as they are. There is not much interest in a mere photograph. I design my own backgrounds and dresses and pose my subjects myself. That raises the photograph out of the ordinary.
Beaton himself was anything but ordinary.
Just before the National Portrait Gallery was forced to close its doors, along with everyone else at this uncertain time, we spoke with Sabina Jaskot-Gill, Curator of Photographs at the National Portrait Gallery, about the exhibition.
Trisha D’Hoker: It feels fitting to hold this exhibition here, as Cecil Beaton did have a relationship with the National Portrait Gallery. Can you tell me about that?
Sabina Jaskot-Gill: We staged a ground-breaking exhibition of Cecil’s photographs here in 1968, and we actually have a lot to thank Cecil for, because without him, I don’t think we would have a photographs department like we do. We currently have around 250 thousand photographs and photographic objects. We had been collecting before 1968, but Cecil’s show really kick-started the department’s activities. And after that show, Cecil donated nearly 300 photographs to the Gallery’s collection.
The 1968 exhibition was curated by Sir Roy Strong, the Gallery’s then director, very young and dynamic, not dissimilar to our own now (Dr. Nicholas Cullinan) and he felt really strongly that photography was something the public wanted and had an appetite for. So he enlisted Cecil, a friend of his, to stage this show. And it was phenomenally popular, wildly exceeding expectations. There were people queuing round into Trafalgar Square, and the exhibition’s run was extended twice. It was the first time the gallery had staged a photographic exhibition, the first time a living photographer held a retrospective in any national gallery in England, and it was the first time that living sitters were allowed to hang on the walls. It made the gallery realise that photography had a place within its exhibitions program.
TDH: Photography had officially become an art form.
SJG: The 1968 show was a career-long retrospective, showing the different facets of Beaton’s career. He does really transform all the way throughout his life in terms of the different roles he occupies: making society portraits, then becoming a respected war photographer and later court photographer to the British monarchy. The 1968 exhibition design was very theatrical throughout; Cecil was of course very involved in the design. There was a room at the end of that exhibition that was full of incense, there were spinning portraits; it was very, very Beaton.
We staged another exhibition here in 2004, which looked specifically at Cecil’s portraiture.
TDH: How does Cecil Beaton’s Bright Young Things differ from these past shows?
SJG: It looks at a part of his career that hasn’t been so thoroughly explored, his early years, when Cecil and his career are coalescing around the Bright Young Things.
TDH: Is this around the time when he started getting his photos into Vogue?
SJG: Yes. The show begins with his childhood photographs where he enlists his sisters and his mother. There are wonderful quotes in his diaries about their patience, how they were long-suffering, being called upon at all hours of the day to take these pictures, having to bribe them at times. So we start with those, and it’s fascinating because even in those early pictures you see a lot of the elements of composition and styling that he uses right the way through his career.
And then we move into his Cambridge years, which is where he starts to get to know the right people but also becomes immersed in the theatre world there and explores his love of costume and set design.
Importantly in the exhibition, we have the first portrait he took outside of his family, his first official portrait sitting, with his first proper sitter, as he called it. The sitter is Steven Runciman, who goes on to become quite a famous historian.
We also have the first picture that is published in Vogue and is credited to him, from April 1924, and it’s a portrait of George (Dadie) Rylands (British theatre director), dressed as the Duchess of Malfi.
In the catalogue, there are wonderful stories of the rivalries he feels with various people because he feels they get parts and he doesn’t and they get to design things and he doesn’t.
TDH: And we know all this because he we such a great documenter, whatever he was doing.
SJG: Exactly. We’ve also included some of his drawings and lots of quotes about the sitters from his diaries.
TDH: There must be so much of his writing to get through.
SJG: Yes there is – you have Cecil’s diaries, which were sanitised before publication, but also the full ‘Unexpurgated’ diaries published later by Beaton biographer Hugo Vickers, where we can read what he really thought of friends and foes.
TDH: Are there any of his famous visitors’ books in the exhibition?
SJG: We have a room dedicated to Ashcombe, the beautiful country house he lived in during the 1930s. There is a whole section about the parties and socialite beauties who visited, and then the fête champêtre, this wildly extravagant party which Beaton hosts at Ashcombe in the summer of 1937, which actually proves to be the culmination of all of this. As war is approaching, it represents the end of an era, signalling the moment when the glamour of the Bright Young Things begins to fade.
In this room of the exhibition we have been lucky enough to borrow Cecil’s visitors’ book from Ashcombe, and you can see all the people who came to stay … in fact it’s a big decision which page to have it opened to for display. Everyone is in there, from Marilyn Monroe to Garbo to the Queen Mother.
TDH: How was he seen at the time by other photographers?
SJG: You get a sense that Beaton could be very charming, but also quite a difficult character at times. He was certainly much admired, especially for his creativity, and you see his influence throughout the twentieth century, and even in photographers such as Tim Walker working today.
TDH: Where would the public have seen his work at the time?
SJG: There were exhibitions, photographic salons where he would have shown his work. Then in 1927 he had a very important solo exhibition at Cooling Galleries in Mayfair, which is really his grand entrance. By this point, he had been through Cambridge and had met the right people and was being supported by the Sitwell family. In fact, there’s a wonderful quote in his diaries where he’s wondering what he’s going to do with his life, and someone tells him not to worry, just make friends with the Sitwells and it will all be fine. And he does! That Cooling Galleries show, which included his drawings and watercolours as well as his photographs, was phenomenally popular. And we’ve got some of the original prints from that show in our exhibition too.
TDH: Do you know how his work was hung for the show?
SJG: No, I’ve never seen any pictures, and the catalogue only has an illustration of one of the photographs – it’s actually one of the photographs we are exhibiting, a multiple exposure self-portrait of Beaton, and one of the treasures of the NPG collection.
TDH: What was the press reaction to the 1927 exhibition?
SJG: Some were kind, some were less so. There’s a picture of Edith Sitwell lying on the floor, like a corpse, which was deemed blasphemous. A portrait of Lady Loughborough, her head encased under a bell jar, was more favourably received. The Sunday News considered it quite the best in the show. We are displaying both these portraits in our exhibition.
TDH: Was there any professional snobbery around him, as an artist or photographer? I know he had an incredible work ethic, but was that enough?
SJG: He was an incredibly hard worker. He obviously gets in with the Bright Young Things and becomes very much a part of the group, but he remains, in a sense, quite distant from the heavier debauchery.
One of the themes of the show is how he is transforming himself from what is essentially a middle-class suburban upbringing to the star photographer at Vogue magazine. And his route into that is through the Bright Young Things. But he always feels he is an outsider, even when in the group and that feeling doesn’t leave him. And I think this really drives him throughout his career.
Looking back now it all seems a bit flippant and frothy, swanning around, dressing up and endless parties, but there was also an incredible amount of creativity too. And that is something we’ve stressed in this exhibition: wonderful writers, musicians, actresses and artists that were all part of this phenomenon. We’ve included paintings by artists, such as Rex Whistler, who were vital members of the group.
You can also see in the exhibition how Cecil was looking to (French photographer) Baron de Meyer who was a huge influence in terms of the very glossy, stylised portraits (Beaton called them the epitome of artificiality and luxury). And you also see how he’s influenced by Edwardian studio portraiture. We have a picture of Cecil, very young, reading magazines in bed. He was totally transfixed by portraits of Edwardian stage actresses. He writes about Lily Elsie, a very famous Edwardian actress, and of being mesmerised by a studio portrait of her, printed as a postcard and covered in glitter, and how this was a transformative moment.
TDH: What are the challenges in doing an exhibition like this, when the artist is not living, and where there is such a huge back catalogue?
SJG: We’ve worked closely with the Cecil Beaton Studio Archive, which is where a lot of this material went after Cecil’s death. I think the key thing with working on a historical show like this is that we’ve really tried to look for the best versions of the prints. We’ve got some very beautiful, very important, vintage works in the show. It has also been about finding some of the more ephemeral material, which really helps to bring that moment of the Bright Young Things back to life. We have some of his scrapbooks because he was a keen scrapbook maker. We’ve got pictures from family albums from private collectors which show the Bright Young Things larking around. And we have home videos from private collections.
TDH: How did you go about collecting all of this?
SJG: It’s really been Robin (Muir), the exhibition curator. He curated the Vogue 100 show here and is a contributing editor to Vogue; he knows that material very well. And it’s been a process, over about four years, of researching and finding this material.
One key thing we’ve unearthed is Cecil’s original camera. At the age of twelve, he was given this beautiful folding 3A Brownie camera, which is now in the collection of the National Trust, but no one realised it was Beaton’s. Robin, on the advice of Beaton scholar Andrew Ginger, went to find it and now we have it on display here in the exhibition. What’s wonderful is that he was using this camera for the entire period of this exhibition, including the pictures he takes for Vogue. It’s only later when Vogue insists upon him using an 8 x 10 large format that he finally gets a different camera. But everything you see in the exhibition was taken on that original Brownie.
TDH: Proof, if needed, that it’s the eye, not the machine.
SJG: It’s all about him being inventive, creating these fantastical worlds in front of the lens. Trying new things and experimenting and using all these props and backdrops with rugs and cellophane and foil, you see that all the way through, even into his more established Vogue years. Cecil’s inventiveness really comes through in this exhibition.
The show ends at the point where Beaton becomes a war photographer, where his photographs of the effects and aftermath of war will earn him respect and stature the Bright Young Things could never confer. His photographic career would continue another forty years, and he would go on to be an award-winning costume designer, set designer and ultimately a national icon, celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic.
At the time of the 1968 National Portrait Gallery Exhibition, Beaton had once again reconnected with the current generation to such an extent that Sir Roy Strong felt Beaton to be the most appropriate artist to launch the gallery into the modern era. Quite an accomplishment for an artist so often associated with bygone Edwardian elegance and Jazz age glamour. But that was part of the enigma that was Beaton.