Review: Cecil Beaton's Bright Young Things Are Tinged With Darkness
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"All that succession and repetition of massed humanity... Those vile bodies." Evelyn Waugh, who features in a scowling, pint-clutching portrait by Henry Lamb at Cecil Beaton's Bright Young Things, jealously (and brilliantly) scythed down Beaton and his set of artsy hipsters in the 1930 novel, Vile Bodies.
You might well question how you can relate to Beaton's universe, in which Lady Loughborough poses demurely in a bell jar, and the Marquesa de Casa Maury vogues in a glittering dress and a glittering cap in front of a glittering curtain. Surely these are not our kind of people.
Lord and Lady This, Count and Countess That, often modelled for Beaton and his Kodak 3A because he could elevate their social status at the snap of a shutter (and vice versa). There's more than a hint of self-congratulation to it all, and this wasn't lost on the press of the time. A cartoon from The Sketch lampoons the waifish, aloof photographer, his subjects 'looking like death'.
But Beaton's images — which scored him a lucrative contract with Vogue in the 1920s and 30s — weren't merely a vanity mirror on champagne socialism and his ridiculous fête champêtre blowouts. Subjects inhabit a fantastical gelatine-silver no-man's-land between two Stygian wars. They must have been a marvellous escapism for those flicking through magazines at the time. They still are.
Who cares if you're not familiar with Baba Beaton, Mrs Charles Baillie-Hamilton and Lady Bridget Poulett, when they're such a bevvy of be-bubbled beauties — enveloped in balloons and clonking great pearls — straight out of a Busby Berkeley sequence? How could you not fall for a young Edith Sitwell pretending to be a carved medieval effigy, a spray of lilies on her chest, two cherubs praying at her side? It's as tongue-in-cheek as it is beautiful, and both photographer and sitter know it.
Such fantasy scapes live on with the likes of Tim Walker, who currently has his own exhibition at the V&A. His photoshoots smack of Beaton's, except Beaton did more with less. While Walker often has elaborate, movie-sized fantasias to play with, Beaton could create wonders in the simplest ways: shooting his sisters' reflections in the lid of a piano; getting accomplices to wave a rug behind the subject to ephemeral effect; scaffolding Anna May Wong's 'grotto of gypsophila' with billiard cues.
Like Walker, Beaton often designed the costumes too, and even wore them (sometimes in the guise of 'Carlo Crivelli'). He was a master of all trades, jack of none.
Darkness laps on the fringes of the Bright Young Things' playfulness: the cameraman of a jolly home movie shot at Weirbridge Cottage in Buckinghamshire is revealed as Oswald Mosley. Beaton himself had an unsavoury side; the exhibition recounts how his friends sometimes despised the gossip-spreading little sod so much, they dunked him in the River Nadder.
Beaton could be worse than that; he was dropped by Vogue after submitting an illustration featuring an anti-semitic slur, which coincided with the expedited wilting of his socialist set. Some of them, like Rex Whistler (a wispy male muse for Beaton, alongside Stephen Tennant) died not long after in action. The ephemeral nature of the Bright Young Things is part of what still lures us to this decadent flash in the pan — and no photographer captured it quite as crisply as Beaton.
Beaton reinvented his shattered reputation with a fresh chapter as a war photographer. It's probably only because of this that we even care about his Bright Young Things days. Still, these sparkling, rollicking images are more than enough to warrant an exhibition of their own.
Cecil Beaton's Bright Young Things, National Portrait Gallery, 12 March-7 June, tickets £18-£20.
Last Updated 11 March 2020