Stephen Tennant, William Walton, Georgia Sitwell, Zita Jungman, Rex Whistler and Cecil Beaton at Wilsford, 1927.
Cecil Beaton was a creative visionary whose artistic output was only matched by his raw talent and widespread influence. And yet, the celebrated photographer and designer has so far avoided a biographical retrospective that properly captures the essence of his spirit alongside the nuances of his oeuvre. It is a challenge presented in part by the multifaceted nature of his creative range, as examining each medium on its own distills the brilliance of his life’s work.
It is with great perspicacity, therefore, that the Salisbury Museum turned to the one sphere of Beaton’s world where work, love and play all came together – his two homes in Wiltshire. The show takes us from Ashcombe, the legendary hideaway for his band of Bright Young Things, to Reddish, the picturesque retreat he maintained until his death in 1980. Curator Andrew Ginger has devotedly pieced together a collection of meticulously crafted replicas, cherished personal possessions and endearing local anecdotes to present a comprehensive look at Beaton the man alongside Beaton the legend. It is a beautiful show that celebrates a life comprised of equal parts passion and refinement, ever imbued with colorful theatricality. Maria Echeverri spoke to Ginger about Beaton and the unique perspective the show offers on his extraordinary life.
“Cecil Beaton at Home” is the third in a series that previously investigated the lives of Rex Whistler and John Constable. It opens Friday, May 23rd and runs through September 19th.
Many thanks to Andrew Ginger and Roger Barnard from Beaudesert Ltd. Andrew Ginger is the Exhibition Curator and the Managing Director, Beaudesert Ltd & The Cecil Beaton Fabric Collection.
Maria Echeverri: Cecil Beaton was a mainstay of the 20th century, and played an enormous role in shaping culture and society’s perceptions of sophistication and good taste. How might this exhibition introduce his influence to younger generations?
Andrew Ginger: Beaton’s creativity spanned everything from theatre to film, fashion to interiors, painting to writing and much of his photographic imagery will already be unconsciously known to young designers. This show will offer an in-depth understanding of Beaton’s personal life, his relationships and his houses, all of which were hugely influential on his creative output. It may be a surprise for some to discover that what they may see as their own ‘modern’ problems, such as sexual confusion or creative self-doubt were just as formative for Beaton.
ME: The highlight of the show seems to be the re-creations, particularly of the Circus Bedroom. Could you tell us a bit about that process?
AG: The bed is a tour de force of Beaudesert’s bespoke bed-making skills and has been in production for some 6 months, and is based on a series of photographs from the Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s and a single watercolour painting by Sir Francis Rose, as the only known colour reference. We've analysed every detail using Sotheby's hi-res images and checked everything in black and white as well as against the colour impression. Beaton's bed was moulded in papier-mâché and we didn't feel that was a medium we could work in nor one that was as durable as we would want. Consequently the bed has been largely hand-carved in Lime-wood with the friezes cast from moulded sections.
(L) Cecil Beaton in his first costume of the night, the famous 'Rabbit' outfit, in his Circus bedroom 10 July 1937. (M) Cecil Beaton photographed by George Hoyningen-Huené for Vanity Fair 1934. (R) Beaton's Bedroom and his gang of artists-standing around one of his drum tables with a little drummer lass.
(L) Cecil Beaton in the "Circus Room" at Ashcombe Mural by Rex Whistler. (R) Rex Whistler, Lord Berners, Oliver Messel and Cecil Beaton, 1931. Photo by Beaton.
ME: The murals on the walls were painted by friends Oliver Messel and Rex Whistler. How were those recreated? How close do you feel the room is to the original?
AG: The murals were painted by Cecil, Oliver Messel, Rex Whistler, Lord Berners, Christopher Sykes and Jorg and Elsa von Reppert-Bismarck. They were all staying over the weekend of 29th May 1932 and bad weather kept them indoors. Having two of the greatest 20th century muralists and set painters there and a white bedroom, everything fell into place. Andrew Joynes has recreated the murals for us from the photographs and captured them perfectly - but it took rather longer than a wet weekend! Only two of the murals still exist at Ashcombe - the equestrienne by Elsa von Reppert-Bismarck and the Columbine with dogs by Lord Berners. These will be shown in the room as life-sized photographs though, having been painted over from 1945-1995, they aren't as fresh as the new ones.
ME: In researching for this piece, I came across the painted panels that Salvador Dali did for Helena Rubinstein’s apartment. It stuck me as deliciously extravagant to commission a mural instead of purchasing a movable canvas, and seems a bit of a novelty for the 20th century. I was wondering if this was a trend that started with Beaton and his close circle of friends at Ashcombe? Are there any other trends or fashions that can be traced to him that may not be as well known?
AG: Murals date back to Roman times, and were popular through the Renaissance and the Baroque eras. Beaton, Messel and Whistler loved them because of their overtly theatrical nature and their ability to deceive the eye and take you to another world. The Circus Room is a great homage to the inspiration of theatre - it didn't matter to Beaton that it was all effect or a bit flimsy, he wanted the romance of an imaginative, created space. Rex and Oliver went on to become very famous for murals, illustration and theatre design but in some ways they were unusual in being so inspired by the past, and by the 18th century in particular. Ashcombe seems to be unique in the period for its wildly creative and theatrical atmosphere - perhaps Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell at Charleston are the only obvious comparison but in quite a different, more domestic scale.
(L) Salavador Dali Mural for Helena Rubinstein, Photo credit House & Garden, April 1948. (R) Dali murals for Helena Rubinstein.
Beaton himself set the world alight with his use of colour - particularly black and white (after the gasp-inspiring Ascot scene in My Fair Lady) - and in his love of red rooms. Not only did he use a red room in many of his productions (Gigi, Lady WIndermere's Fan etc), he upholstered his bedroom walls in London in peony red and his drawing room in black velvet the better to show off his contemporary art. The red velvet drawing room at Reddish was described as 'crushed blackberry' at the time.
(L) The Reddish House Living Room. (R) Dorian Leigh in the drawing room of Beaton’s 18th century manor house (Reddish House), 1950’s by Cecil Beaton.
(L) Diana Vreeland in Red Room. (R) Cecil Beaton’s living room in his suite at the Plaza Hotel, 1946.
ME: There have been many exhibitions on Cecil Beaton, and yet the shows rarely feel whole, perhaps in part because of the multifaceted nature of his work. But still, there is an elusive nature to the mediums he choses: portraiture directs steadfast attention to the sitter, while set and costume design, by their very nature confuse identity through continuous experimentation. This exhibition, however, seems to properly capture the essence of the man – why do you think that is the case?
AG: I hope it does - but the better you feel you know him the more he fascinates with his contradictions. I hope the show will inspire visitors to read his excellent books and diaries, which are hugely entertaining and engrossing, as well as explore his lesser known work as textile designer, illustrator and caricaturist. One of the motivations for the show was the fact that Beaton seems to be a person many people come to with a host of prejudices and preconceptions - sometimes quite negative ones. Getting to know the few people who still remember him, we were touched by the way they saw him as a deeply warm and loyal friend and a very generous and unaffected man - quite different to the spiky, polished persona he often projected in his work life. His complex approach to life and art is deeply interesting, as his complex approach to love and sex. In his devotion to self-publicity he was completely prescient, though this ultimately led to a sense of loneliness. The work and ambition came at a price.
ME: Much of the story you are telling with this show seems to center around Ashcombe, and Beaton’s relationship with the estate can be described as a kind of love affair. I was struck by the sanctity of his words in describing his first visit to the estate. “None of us uttered a word as we came under the vaulted ceiling and stood before a small, compact house of lilac-coloured brick. We inhaled sensuously the strange, haunting - and rather haunted - atmosphere of the place ... I was almost numbed by my first encounter with the house. It was as if I had been touched on the head by some magic wand.” For those of us who have not have the pleasure of visiting, can you speak to the unique energy of the home?
AG: I've been lucky enough to go three times so far and I can honestly say it lives up to every word and description. The place is uniquely beautiful and in quite a quietly haunted way. It sounds exaggerated but I was bracing myself for disappointment the first time I walked under the archway but it was just breath taking. The house is small - quite domestic in scale - but very enfolding and the views from every window are gorgeous. Of course inside it looks quite different now, but the slightly melancholy beauty remains even though it's immaculately kept. It didn't surprise me that Beaton had no qualm about being there alone and relished the silence. You can't help but feel cut off and close to nature.
(L) Farewell to Ashcombe, 1948. (M) Ashcombe. (R) Cecil Beaton with his sisters at Ashcombe.
(L) Ashcombe photo by Tim Walker for US Vogue. (R) Cecil Beaton’s photograph of a fancy-dress party in 1937 at Ashcombe.
(L) Lady Ottoline Morrell at Ashcombe, Summer 1933. (R) Ashcombe, The Story of Fifteen Year Lease, 1949.
ME: Can you elaborate a bit on the specificity of Beaton’s time at Ashcombe? His book Ashcombe: The Story of a Fifteen-Year Lease was written in 1948 and is tinged with post-war nostalgia. Do you think the exuberant innocence of the years before the war informed the world created at Ashcombe?
AG: The War changed everything for everyone - so many didn't survive for a start - so the place Beaton looks back at Ashcombe from is grave and sober in comparison. The 30s take on a mystical festivity and extravagant innocence through this lens. But in reality he captures more than the jolly larks of a uniquely wealthy, privileged and artistic set. He captures the thrill of early adulthood - independence, self-knowledge, kindred spirits - it's the essence of what so many of us go through after college from 22-35. For Beaton - as for all his artistic, intellectual, gay and bi-sexual friends - the chance to spend time together away from the gaze of restrictive elders, society or press, was intoxicating - country house weekends for the rest of the gang meant being in the grand houses of their parents. Ashcombe was, as Rex described it, “Liberty Hall" and Beaton, extraordinarily, was earning the vast salary to manage it. The extravagance during what was, let's remember, the Great Depression, was remarkable, but Beaton never thinks about money or the future - there is a wonderfully spontaneous, joyful frivolity about the whole episode which comes directly from the heart.
ME: Can you tell us a bit about Reddish? What work did he do to this house? How did it compare to Ashcombe? Did he try to recreate some of the magic of the previous place or was it a fresh start?
AG: Throughout his later life Cecil insisted Ashcombe could not be repeated - he could never go back - it wouldn't have been the same. Had he returned there after the War who knows how he would have felt or what he would have done. One can't imagine him in the Circus Bed at 60 somehow.., it could have been all very sad.
Reddish was very different to Ashcombe, though finding a house with anything like the same character was bound to be a struggle. In the two years of looking Cecil suffered nightmares, waking in a sweat imagining he was being obliged to buy a modern, suburban villa with a magnolia tree and double garage. Though Reddish sits directly on a quaint village street the garden of 5 acres behind and in front of the house (across the street) brought a feeling of remoteness and seclusion a little similar to Ashcombe. Reddish like Ashcombe is a very grand little house - barely 3 bedrooms in the main building and two thatched cottages in the garden. It has huge architectural character with the stone bust of a laurelled poet over the front door and a laurelled oval in the brick pediment topped with a theatrical mask.
Beaton paid £ 10,000 for it in 1948 (about a million today) and immediately set about improving it, though it wasn't until 1955 that he enlarged the drawing room with the columned apse and added the winter garden. The theatricality of Reddish is more adult than Ashcombe - the Circus Bed was dumped for being 'frivolous junk' and he turned to his other great passion - the Edwardian age. The red, white and gold drawing room with its French furniture and trumeau mirror is a sophisticated stage set for him as the older aesthete complete with smoking jacket. The rosy chintz he had specially copied for the room has been recreated for the show and once again covers his sofa, standing on a recreation of his own designed classical carpet. His increased standing as designer of films and Royal photographer brought in more income and the art collection became suitably grand and mature to match his new status. The garden was his greatest joy and the house was always heavy with flowers and they were ritually carried back to London every week.
One thing that is worth pointing out - for all the sophistication and depth of engagement with both his houses in Wiltshire - Cecil was always (until his stroke in 1974) a weekender! He rarely spent longer than a Friday to Tuesday in the country, even though he stated that all his artistic, creative work was done there. London was for 'marketing his produce', as he put it, and taking photographs of course. Add to this that he travelled continually, before, during and after the War, and that he spent 2-3 months of most working years in New York, Palm Beach and Hollywood and it is simply staggering how much he achieves.
(L) Dorian Leigh, shot by Cecil Beaton in the garden at Reddish House, Wiltshire, Vogue 1951. (M) Beaton's Self-Portrait at Reddish House. (R) Cecil Beaton with dog at home in Reddish.
(L) Cecil Beaton at Reddish. (R) Cecil Beaton & Bianca Jagger, Reddish.
(L) Beaton and Jean Shrimpton, Reddish House, 1965. (R) Beaton at Reddish.
ME: I want to talk a bit about Beaton’s style. In the teaser trailer you have released for the exhibition there is a clipping that reads “Theatrical Panache”. That seems a very apt term to describe his mode. There is something about his work that feels very interactive. I’m thinking of the handprint wallpaper of course, but also the blurred lines between interiors, sets and costumes. Do you think this style evolved through his work at both homes?
AG: Beaton's love of theatre really informs everything he does - certainly his photography and in many ways his homes, his art, his photography are only tools to achieve a romantic and theatrical feeling. When he first goes to Hollywood in 1928 he lingers on the giant sets of a Dolores del Rio movie and says in his diary - "how wonderful to live among scenery". At Reddish it all looked very grand but the columns in the hall were hollow and marbleised by the set decorator and designer Felix Harbord - similarly the dado mouldings in the drawing room (at least until 1955) were trompe l'oeil.
The hands on the bathroom wall and ceiling at Ashcombe weren't actually wallpaper but were drawn on the walls and signed by invited guests, but I suspect he went over them in ink later as they look so consistent in quality, if wildly different as hands. Before he left Ashcombe he wrote a list of all the names and we'll publish that for the first time in the forth-coming catalogue. There were 280 in all and it represents a second visitors' book in a way. He used to lie in the bath and muse on the various juxtapositions. I was surprised to see the name of his landlord, Mr Borley, on that list! He must have felt obliged to include him...
Cecil Beaton in the bathroom at Ashcombe.
ME: What about his personal style? Did he dress as elaborately as some of his designs? Was he a dandy?
AG: Dr Ben Wild gave a lecture all about Beaton’s own style at the V&A on Saturday 10 May and will repeat it again later in the year in London and hopefully Salisbury. Cecil certainly was very stylish and cared a great deal about his manicured appearance - his visual sense was acute and he turned his critical eye on himself as much as everyone else. Though he toned down his sense of flamboyance on the advice of Noel Coward and others, he was brave enough to wear what he liked in a very conservative age. His broad brimmed, high crowned, planation Panama hat alone was enough to make some uncomfortable in those days and he was rarely seen without it or the flowing neck scarves he favoured. He shows great courage and integrity in his determination to dress as he wishes, though he claimed to be baffled when he was voted on to the list of the world's best-dressed men in the late 60s.
ME: Did you uncover any more of his legendary scrapbooks?
AG: Sotheby’s hold 42 and there are others in private hands, one of which will be in the show, which is very exciting, as it hasn’t been exhibited before.
The Beaton Estate have some of the last few unseen scrapbooks and we are absolutely delighted that they have consented to lend one to the show. It dates from the late 20s and will be used to demonstrate his obsession for Greta Garbo long before he finally met her in 1932. The scrapbooks are every bit as fascinating as you would suppose and it was tough to choose the spread it was to be open at.
We are also delighted to have Cecil’s Ashcombe/Reddish Visitors' Book which is something of a Holy Grail. You may have seen it at the V&A show in 2012 but this time we have access to more pages showing sophisticated doodles by Graham Sutherland, Tchelitchew, Francis Rose and many others, as well as a touching entry by Stephen Tennant.
(L) Images from the Ashcombe Guestbook.
(L) Cecil Beaton's Scrapbook. (R) Greta Garbo Eye scarf fabric by Cecil Beaton.
ME: What is your favorite piece in the exhibition? Is there anything about Beaton you were surprised to learn?
AG: It's hard to have a favourite piece - there are many highlights - I was very thrilled to find Garbo's Rose, still owned by the photographer who bought it at the auction in 1980. This is the rose Garbo played with when they first met in 1932 and which he kept dried in his diary and later framed. Nothing speaks of Cecil's essentially romantic self more eloquently than this - was he in love with Greta? Or in love with the idea of her or the idea of being in love with her? It's probably one of the smallest items in the show but one of the most poignant and iconic.
(L) Greta's Rose. (R) Garbo visited Beaton in England for the first time. She is photographed in Salisbury and in Beaton's mansion at Reddish House in Broadchalke/ England. 1951 - Here at the garden door, Reddish.
In talking to and recording the residents of Broad Chalke who remembered Cecil I was so touched by their affection for him. I've worked with lots of very wealthy or renowned people and how they treat their staff, or how their staff speak of them, is perhaps one of the greatest litmus tests of a personality. You can't keep a pretence up at home and it was clear that they all had a lot of fun and kindness from Cecil and missed him very much. I felt that people needed to hear that and I hope that visitors to the show will take the time to listen to the brief excerpts we will be playing - some of them are hilarious, some very moving.
ME: Any closing thoughts?
AG: When Noel Coward was shown round Ashcombe in 1937, whilst staying for a weekend with Lady Juliet Duff in Wilton, he commented that he thought it "the most courageous thing he'd ever seen". In an age preoccupied with self-image and self-honesty Cecil has much to contribute - for all his carefully manufactured image he was undoubtedly unafraid to take his own course. He was a man acutely concerned with what the world thought of him, and yet, oddly determined to provoke criticism and judgement by being unrelentingly himself. For years he has been derided for being a social climber but how else is the talented man born out of his milieu to succeed? Especially in a time of such rigid social strata. On his trips to Reddish on the train from Waterloo he would often notice a suburban photographers studio, visible from the train window at the end of Victorian terrace in Woking and say to himself: "There but for the grace of God, go I". What a loss for us all if he hadn't had the drive and courage to become the man he was.