A small boy, on his knees, hangs over the bath with his nanny, a Romanesque beauty he calls Ninny. Her dark eyes smile at him. In the bath bromide papers float; photographs taken with her Kodak 3A. A refulgent privacy would characterise Cecil’s own photography: upturned faces, steamy lighting, flowery auras. A vicious bitch, he was nonetheless given to lingering adorations. Ninny, for one, went on to assist the adult Cecil. Together they played make-believe, in a studio draped in muslin and magenta silk. Only, by that point, Cecil had amassed his desired cast of real-world celebrities, queens, kings, writers and actors.
This world-making, making the private public, is showcased in the exhibition, Cecil Beaton’s Bright Young Things at The National Portrait Gallery, London, 12 March to 7 June 2020. Beaton, crafting his own story in over 120 volumes of diaries that he edited and redrafted, was a forerunner of Instagram. Through his own filter of myth-making, he photographed his hawkish eyes and sullen, rouged pout. Desperate to be famous, he sent his selfies to Social Editors. “No one could help me,” he said, in a 1962 BBC interview. “It was up to me to find the sort of world I wanted.”
Born in 1904, Cecil was not poor, despite casting himself as a Cinderella. However, as the oldest son of a timber merchant and grandson of a Cumberland blacksmith, Beaton was deprived of that aristocratic spectacle, typical of Elizabethan dandies, or Beau Brummel, that might have otherwise sanctioned his femininity. Embarrassed by his bourgeois Hampstead home, Beaton had no intention of overthrowing the Establishment. He plotted to better it. He petitioned Vogue and Tatler with portraits of himself, his mother and his sisters. He wore drag for the Footlights at Cambridge and failed to get a degree. Dressing himself as an upper-class socialite, he invented his own form of queer prestige, borrowing from Surrealism, aestheticism and the theatre.
Surrealism allowed personality to be everything and nothing, as Beaton demonstrated when he savagely and dazzlingly photographed three of the arty Sitwell siblings as a vertical row of heads appearing out of a mirror. The Sitwells were the in-crowd of fashionable London society. Following Cambridge, they’d taken up Beaton, as had Stephan Tennant, the openly gay lover of the poet Siegfreid Sassoon. Tennant hosted the group nicknamed The Bright Young Things at his family home at Wilsford Manor. It was to Beaton’s social advantage to suggest, through Surrealism, that anyone, mainly Beaton, could emerge from anywhere. He beheaded privileged kids and turned their heads into ornamental knobs. But he was no egalitarian queer. Beaton’s androgynous fantasies had to be supported by a cast of toffs. Whereas Tennant flaunted his homosexuality, notoriously arriving in New York with an armful of lillies and wittily subverting the custom’s guard’s homophobia into a bon mot, Beaton’s bisexuality, in life, was more cautious. He was rejected by both the man and the woman he loved – art collector Peter Watson and Greta Garbo. When we judge his shrine-like portraits and tableaux against Beaton’s own feeling he was a “felon and an outcast” we might better understand their haughty Aryan gleam.
An Oscar-winning costume designer, also excelling in theatre design, Beaton used artifice to defy a British masculinity that precluded him. Far from concealing technique, his pictures flaunt the artifice required to produce a detailed Englishness, fantastical and Imperialist. Beaton’s Tory Romanticism is closer to the spirit of Disraeli, Churchill and Mountbatten than Oscar Wilde or the French decadents.
In The Bright Young Things At Wilsford (1927), Beaton can be seen on the far right. He pose is balletic, a little apart from the rest – and a little more pantomime dame (he played Cinderella’s ugly step-sister, at one of the Wilsford parties). The costumed group appear unreal, superimposed on the old country house, as they do in their famous photograph on the bridge at Wilsford. The camera is intoxicated, almost savage in its slant. Beaton’s slants and simmerings separate his world from ours – yet require the bewilderment of the viewer for their effect.
Throughout his early career, Beaton used his sisters, debutantes Baba and Nancy Beaton as feminine mirrors of his own hawk-eyed, blonde beauty.
Here, in ‘Nancy and Baba Beaton, 1926’, a mirror splits Beaton’s vision of female Narcissus. Reflected statuary and the sunlight breaking through a roughly draped window hint at a classical yet domestic world. This feminine space of self-making is rapturous yet sterile. Baba’s movie star head hovers, decapitated, above her elder sister, Nancy. Cecil liked beheadings. The mirror guillotines Nancy’s neck as she looks up from a rumpled silk sheet, at this dream of a woman, her double, except younger, better. Baba, self-absorbed, does not meet Nancy’s look. Beaton would return several times to self-absorbed floating heads in photographs were personality looms like an inevitable monument. Many of Beaton’s more polished portraits of Baba shine loftily with mirrors and silver thunderclouds. Yet the guillotine reveals the violence and loneliness behind the feminine construction.
Sexuality, in Beaton’s photographs, is suspended. Repeatedly, he pinned a woman’s body in a sequinned dresses against sequinned background. With her hair capped in fishy sequins, Paula Gellibrand, Marquesa de Casa Maury (1928) appears as bizarre and sexless as the sea in aspic: only her ornamented hands are soft, sensual. Exotic costumes, sets and poses dominate the human. Indeed, one of the most riveting photographs in this exhibition is a campy funeral presentation, ‘Edith Sitwell At Sussex Gardens (1926)’, in which the theatrical corpse of Sitwell, is laid with white death lilies (another recurring motif) and wrapped in a futuristic, metallic shroud, flanked by stone putti. The perfect woman is a compound of effects. She is the Baroque, mummified.
Men did not fare better. Oliver Messel, in his ostrich feather plumed helmet and white embroidered tunic, poses as Paris in Oh Helen! He is profiled as a Grecian object, a silhouette on an antique vase brought to life by a flood of lighting. Messel’s youth – or is it Vaseline – congeals on his gleaming cheekbone. His beauty coldly overturns Helen’s claim of supreme desirability, yet he, too, looks trapped by Beaton’s construction. He is a neutered hunk, battered by white glamour, bent beneath feathers and diaphanous drapery.
Beaton’s father’s body made him squeamish. He compared Daddy’s attempts at photography to a child tugging at the umbilical cord. He was disconnected from his father’s cigar-chomping masculinity – “that sort of laughter in the billiard room was a world … I had a slight antipathy to” – and from his brother, whom he felt his father preferred and who committed suicide. Obsessed by perfect pairings, Beaton appears here as a blonde twin to Stephan Tennant in their diagonally slanted portrait, by Maurice Beck and Helen Macgregor, 1927.
In marcel waves and screen goddess profile, Tennant poses on Beaton’s shoulder, the two of them in pastiche sporty stripes. Beaton’s finely manicured hands are clasped again in a dance pose, satirising the naval hornpipe. The upset mirror this time suggests the upheaval of masculine forces, much like Andy Warhol’s later photographing of the Dupont twins. But the sensual, freckled ripple of those later gay brothers is here flattened to a jagged sternness.
In Beaton’s diaries, carnality nauseates him. Elizabeth Taylor is a “thick great revolving mass of femininity at its rawest.” Bullied by Katherine Hepburn over his costume designs, he scrutinises her: “a raddled, rash ridden, freckled, burnt, mottled, bleached and wizened piece of decaying matter”. In his photograph of another pair of visual twins, his friends, the Jungman sisters, Beaton lays them naked on cellophane suggestive of a mortuary sheet. “The Jungman sisters are a pair of decadent 18th-century angels made of wax,” Beaton wrote, “exhibited at Madame Tussaud’s before the fire.”
By the 1930s, Beaton was in demand as a photographer for Vogue and the British royal family. His photographs staged their comeback after Edward VIII’s abdication. His work from this time amalgamates special effects: the asphyxiated glamour of silver foil; living flesh embalmed to perfection; women arranged like cornucopia.
In The Silver Soapsuds (1930), another diagonal composition, Baba Beaton, the Hon. Mrs Charles Baillie-Hamilton and Lady Bridget Poulett appear adrift on cellophane wrapped bubbles, with fashionably rounded shoulders, sloping décolletages and matching silver sequin gowns. There’s a congealed sexiness to this image of a Jazz Age girl group, who foreshadow Motown girl bands. The slanting, glistening balloons are suggestive of sperm or, perhaps, the gelatinated ovaries of the organism that spawned them: Beaton himself. At his best, Beaton’s creativity seems to feed on itself, a self-pleasuring of erotic intensity that inflected modernity.
In 1938, Beaton was sacked by Vogue for submitting a caricature of ‘New York Society’ which included the phrase, ‘damned kikes.’ These were not his own words but the racist print on fluttering newspapers in an illustration that showed a burst of trombones, telephones, party girls and swizzle sticks. Whatever, he was out.
Denying anti-Semitism and blaming exhaustion for this “subconscious” slip, Beaton was glad to be hired by the UK Ministry of Information as a war photojournalist, taking his famous picture of a Polish Jewish refugee boy in Palestine (1942). “I was sick to death,” he said, “Of photographing people around apple blossom.”
The maturing Beaton nonetheless pursued a fantasy of making his own Bright Wiltshire kingdom with Greta Garbo for a wife. Garbo’s aquiline profile and morose-divine gaze made her Beaton’s ideal, conveniently distant twin (“as beautiful as the aurora borealis” he wrote). For 14 years, Beaton courted from afar this “half-boy, half-woman”, till in 1946 she suddenly instigated sex in the Plaza hotel. Beaton proposed. He bought Reddish, a Queen Anne house in Wiltshire, for them. She visited, “fooling around” she said. When he said he wanted a child by her, Garbo remarked, cruelly but fittingly, that she would have it beheaded.
Beaton’s Cinderella fantasies funnelled into the films Gigi and My Fair Lady, winning 3 Oscars for costume and art design.
Alan Jay Lerner, working with him on My Fair Lady, noted, “Inside Cecil there is a another Cecil Beaton sending out lots of little Cecils into the world”. In a portrait here by Paul Tanqueray, Beaton, smattered with his selfies, stares down the camera. Skinny and nervy, he sits, or rather, rides, a stool. His snooty face looks pained: he’s condescending to undertake an impossible balancing act. This exhibition presents Beaton’s project to reproduce a new Cecil, artificial, asexual and, beneath the silvery surface, trapped between his pursuit of subversion and prestige.
All photographs courtesy of The National Portrait Gallery and the exhibition, Cecil Beaton’s Bright Young Things, at The National Portrait Gallery, London, 12 March to 7 June 2020.
By Soma Ghosh