Dissertation Proposal: The Art of Living: Cecil Beaton and Stephen Tennant 1918-1939

By Paul Bench

The central concerns of the dissertation are those of aesthetics and a queer sensibility. An exploration of the linkage between these is enabled by the focused study of Cecil Beaton and Stephen Tennant within a narrowly defined period. The paper seeks to establish the importance of a queer subjectivity within the aesthetics of the subjects, their productive output and the cultural landscape in which they operated. These three positions are encompassed by ‘the art of living’.

The dissertation will isolate aesthetic features of the interwar period that may not appear within established thematic design or art histories but are given prominence in the case study subjects of Cecil Beaton and Stephen Tennant. The lens of their subjectivities will enable an approach that merges aesthetic fields by their relevance to the subjects. For example, prominence may be given to an aspect of interior decoration in common with that of fine art painting or fashion photography. Through this focus on the individual subjects and the queer aspects of their experience, associations will be established between a queer sensibility and its cultural products.

The empirical basis of research is directed by the selection and comparison of Beaton and Tennant. Their individual subjective experience stands in contrast to broad historical stylistic records directed by inanimate cultural products. A broad definition of fashion is also developed and directed by the subjects to incorporate a wide-ranging gamut of experiential fashion culture described by Cecil Beaton as ‘the art of living’. Fashion culture is thus contextualised in opposition to design histories that have unspecified selection influenced by author preference or surviving artefact and frequently reduce the fashion product as pertaining only to clothing.

The subjectivity and inter-subjectivity of Beaton and Tennant permits through focused research, an address to their position as queer subjects within an isolated period. This dissertation will draw upon the academic spheres of queer theory and gay and lesbian studies/histories. ‘Queer’ is proposed as a gender-neutral term that is not confined to sexuality. It applies to sources beyond the human subject, and does not construct a binary opposition between heterosexuality and homosexuality. The unavoidable binary is instead a construct between that which is proposed as queer and normative. The dissertation may contextualise norms in each case study to establish the queer relative position of subjects or material, but it may also be taken as axiomatic, Beaton and Tennant being established as queer subjects.

In tandem with queer theory, gay and lesbian studies/histories have attempted to document unreported queer historical experience. Testimonials have by necessity focussed largely on a post war generation and the documentation of more temporally distant events has depended upon scant records. The dissertation will draw upon both strands of study but with fresh application to the specific period and subjects, utilising theory in the service of history. It is the conflation of these strands, the specificity of the case studies but the breadth of research across disciplines that will endow this study with an original perspective. The treatment of Beaton and Tennant as specifically queer subjects also heightens this position.

The connection between producer and product is underrepresented in the academy. This is true of literature relating to Beaton, while any assessment of Tennant is new beyond the bounds of biography or photographic representation. The comparison of these two figures and particularly their output is also original. In existing work either the cultural product, its content or the producer takes precedence. It is an aim of this dissertation to unite these elements and further to assess material within an historical context.


Through the lens of Cecil Beaton and Stephen Tennant discourse is produced between their subjectivity and its relationship to their cultural landscape. It constructs the subjects as consumers, producers and mediators of culture within a spatial and temporal locale. The methodological approach is therefore interdisciplinary by necessity. Account is taken of historical, social and cultural theories and perspectives, whilst prominence is given to the performance of identity in accordance with the aim of the dissertation. This has particular relevance to a queer subjectivity and its impact upon ‘the art of living’.

The dissertation will be structured as a series of chapters each comparing source material associated with Beaton and Tennant. This will give focus to the study narrative and enable qualitative assessment of preselected material from a quantitative research base. It will also enable the equal assessment of Beaton and Tennant. In this way for example, photographs of Beaton and Tennant may be compared as evidence of self-presentation with external sources being invoked by description or appendices to create contextual discourse. This comparison will consider the intersectionality of the features of subjective experience alongside the importance of identity performance and its relationship to culture. It is here that comparison between Beaton and Tennant within a cultural context will elaborate the central theme of this paper: the connection between aesthetics and a queer sensibility.

The comparative textual analysis of research material will in part be dictated by available primary sources. Cultural products are deemed to include: photographs, literary text, clothing, artworks and managed environments. Self-presentation and representation are largely found in visual portraiture and written description. Photographs are likely to dominate as primary source material. These are of interest as a medium but their content may be prioritised, such as with photographic records of spatial environments. Primary sources include Beaton’s scrapbooks and clothes in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s archives and photographs in the Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s. The National Portrait Gallery archives will also be used. Tennant’s drawings will be sought in private collections.

Textual analysis will be applied to selected material and will draw upon an art historical tradition for visual texts. It is in accordance with this study to emphasise not only the multi-textual necessity proposed by ‘the art of living’ but to apply a multi-disciplinary approach to analysis. The theoretical aspects of context and subjectivity alongside theory associated with visual interrogation such as semiotics will be significant to each analysis.

Reflection is fundamental and continuous to analysis. Though unstable and subjective, investigation will seek empathy with the subjects. It is hoped that the comparison of Beaton and Tennant will aid this process and be elucidatory. This attempted objective empathy is proposed as necessary in a study directed by individual historical figures. Whilst this may have been implicit in their biographies, the dissertation makes this explicit and situates empathetic methodology within an academic realm. Reflection upon findings will draw together research and analysis in a final conclusion that addresses the initial aims of the dissertation.

Featured image: Cecil Beaton, Stephen Tennant by Maurice Beck and Helen Macgregor (1927). © reserved; collection National Portrait Gallery, London.


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