by Paul Bench
Cecil Beaton was a luminary in many creative fields, his work and life proving to be an inspiration to many. This continued public interest in both the man and his career was highlighted by a recent exhibition and lecture programme at Sybil Colefax & John Fowler, curated by Andrew Ginger of Beaudesert. The exhibition was a distillation of a larger show formerly at Salisbury Museum, a significant component of which comprised black and white photographs predominantly from the Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s. These were hung alongside other artworks by and of Beaton, including portraits and self-portraits in addition to artefacts (or their replicas) from the interiors of his homes: Reddish and Ashcombe.
The most incontestably arresting and theatrical piece was a recreation of Beaton’s bed originally designed by artist and friend Rex Whistler. A concoction of golden rococo curlicues and mythical creatures complete with canopy, rampant unicorns and a supine neptune headboard for good measure, the bed seems to be a sculptural realisation of the drawings and theatricality that characterised Beaton’s early success and perhaps the excesses of the interwar period. This point was underscored by a replica of a coat worn by Beaton as fancy dress. Boldly appliquéd with faux egg shells and embroidered with a floral design it was worn for a fête champêtre and emphasises the influence of surrealism along with Beaton’s ebullient confidence in this period. Artworks, photographs and artefacts were displayed in a context that evoked particular elements of Beaton’s homes, stressing the extension of his talents into interior decoration. The Mayfair location and elegant interior of the Sibyl Colefax and John Fowler showroom therefore seemed particularly apposite.
The exhibition was supported by a series of evening lectures taking place in the intimate setting of the exhibition space, surrounded by Beaton’s images and possessions, each providing a different perspective on his life and oeuvre. A chronological overview was given by Beaton’s biographer Hugo Vickers, whose new book, Cecil Beaton: Portraits and Profiles was also launched at the event, many of the images from it forming part of the exhibition. Further to this a television documentary made by the BBC in 1984 was screened, providing a rare chance to view archive footage of Beaton and some of his contemporaries, including an appearance by the Stephen Tennant in situ at Wilsford Manor. This film also enabled some opportunity to contemplate the significance of Beaton’s aesthetic life as expressed through his possessions. This was most poignantly effected by footage of the auction of Beaton’s property at his home, following his death in 1980.
Dr. Benjamin Wild also produced two lectures for the programme, one taking place at the National Portrait Gallery. Here Beaton’s regard for his self image was explored, as seen through many self portraits and a somewhat strained relationship with portraits painted of him by others – a replica of his most favoured by Pavel Tchelitchew being displayed in the exhibition at Brook St. Beaton’s anxiety to be represented favourably seems to hint at both an obsessive relationship with aesthetics in general and a more personal anxiety. These concerns with self representation through art perhaps indicate Beaton’s search for affirmation and the creation of a legacy, a theory supported by his indefatigable work ethic. It is telling of his restlessness and self-regard that most of his portraits were met with dissatisfaction despite his initial enthusiasms for each project. A manipulated identity based on high aesthetic ideals and alignment of the artist’s view of his character with his own seemingly proved difficult to attain. At Sybil Colefax and John Fowler, Dr. Wild gave a further lecture to précis his forthcoming book which chronicles Beaton’s personal fashion history, traversing his relationship with his London and Dorset tailors, and the evolution of a style that earned Beaton the accolade of International Best Dressed Man in 1970.
The lecture series culminated with Josephine Ross giving an account of Beaton’s relationship with Vogue, providing a potted history of his editorial work as published in that magazine. Having worked at Vogue and produced a book detailing Beaton’s relationship with the magazine (‘Beaton in Vogue’), Ross was well placed to give a personal and historical account of Beaton’s work that complimented the lectures of biographical detail. This also provided an informative social and cultural history of 20th century Britain and America, as seen through Beaton’s lens for Vogue. Contrasts and similarities were also drawn between Beaton’s fashion images and war photography, showcasing the diverse strands of Beaton’s output, their reception and development.
The exhibition content was comprehensive, and sensitively curated with a studied and jewel-like quality. The display within semi-domestic settings could not have been more appropriate and established a more fully rounded sense of a practitioner through his work and possessions. The exhibits and lectures were contextualised by information and images that drew on the many associations between Beaton and his celebrated and dynamic milieu. A connection to interiors and a particular locale was also established in detail provided regarding his properties. This specificity in situating Beaton and his work highlighted not only his personal biography, but also the way in which his creativity was exercised within these more personal arenas.
Holistically, the programme Beaton at Brook St suggested a distinct blurring of boundaries between work and private life, Beaton seeming to have lived out his aesthetic sensibilities through his clothes, homes and work. His professional creativity appeared to provide further forum for the equivalent skills, it is just that those skills, his eye and his aesthetic had an appeal far beyond the whimsy he was able to use with caustic precision for commercial gain. Life and art appear to be at one in Beaton’s productive output and lived aesthetic.
Featured image c.Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s