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'Cecil Beaton's Bright Young Things' - Rarely-Seen Works Reveal a 'Deliriously Eccentric, Glamorous and Creative Era'

  • LONDON, United Kingdom
  • /
  • May 20, 2019

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Baba Beaton as 'Heloise' in 'Great Lovers Pageant' by Cecil Beaton, 1927. National Portrait Gallery, London

Cecil Beaton’s portraits from a golden age will be brought together the first time in a major new exhibition opening at the National Portrait Gallery, London, in March 2020. Featuring around 150 works, many of which are rarely exhibited, Cecil Beaton’s Bright Young Things will explore the extravagant world of the glamorous and stylish ‘Bright Young Things’ of the twenties and thirties, seen through the eye of renowned British photographer Cecil Beaton (1904-1980).

Through the prism of Beaton’s portraits the exhibition will present the leading cast, to many of whom he would become close, and who in these early years helped refine his remarkable photographic style - artists and friends Rex Whistlerand Stephen Tennant, set and costume designer Oliver Messel, composer William Walton, modernist poets Iris Tree and Nancy Cunard, glamorous socialites Edwina Mountbatten and Diana Guinness (née Mitford), actresses and anglophiles Tallulah Bankhead and Anna May Wong, among many others.

Brought to vivid life each of them has a story to tell. There are the slightly less well known too – style icons Paula Gellibrand, the Marquesa de Casa Maury and Baba, Princesse de Faucigny-Lucinge, the eccentric composer and aesthete Lord Berners, modernist poet Brian Howard, part model for Brideshead Revisited’s mannered ‘Anthony Blanche’, ballet dancer Tilly Losch and Dolly Wilde Oscar’s equally flamboyant niece.

Oliver Messel by Cecil Beaton, 1932. © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby's

Also featured are those of an older generation, who gave Beaton’s career early impetus: outspoken poet and critic Edith Sitwell, the famously witty social figure Lady Diana Cooper, artist and Irish patriot Hazel, Lady Lavery, and the extraordinary, bejewelled Lady Alexander, whose husband produced Oscar Wilde’s comedies and who became an early patron of Beaton’s.

Cecil Beaton’s own life and relationship with the ‘Bright Young Things’ will be woven into the exhibition, not least in self-portraits and those by his contemporaries. Socially avaricious, he was a much-photographed figure, a celebrity in his own right.

Beaton’s transformation from middle-class suburban schoolboy to glittering society figure and the unrivalled star of Vogue, revealed a social mobility unthinkable before the Great War. He used his artistic skills, his
ambition and his larger-than-life personality to become part of a world that he would not surely have joined as a right. Throughout the twenties and thirties his photographs place his friends and heroes under perceptive, colourful and sympathetic scrutiny.

The exhibition will bring together loans from national and international collections and in particular an extensive loan from the Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby's. Highlights will include vintage prints of Beaton’s earliest subjects, his glamorous sisters Nancy and Baba; the Vogue portrait of his friend George Rylands as ‘The Duchess of Malfi’, published when he was a student, and which set him on the road to fame. There are glimpses from high-spirited revels at country house weekends, including a rare vintage print of the leading lights dressed as eighteenth-century shepherds and shepherdesses on the bridge at Wilsford Manor, regarded now as the quintessential depiction of the Bright Young Things. In town, parties, charity balls and pageants were enlivened by an almost maniacal zeal for the theatrical and the extravagant in costume and attitude.

Cecil Beaton by Paul Tanqueray, 1937. National Portrait Gallery, London © Estate of Paul Tanqueray

In addition to Beaton’s own portraits, the exhibition will also feature paintings by friends and artists known to Beaton including Rex Whistler, Henry Lamb, Ambrose McEvoy, Christopher Wood and Augustus John; portraits of Beaton by Paul Tanqueray, Dorothy Wilding, and Curtis Moffat; as well as letters, magazines, invitations, scrapbooks, book jackets and other ephemera.

Robin Muir, Curator of Cecil Beaton’s Bright Young Things said: “The exhibition will bring to life a deliriously eccentric, glamorous and creative era of British cultural life, combining High Society and the avant-garde, artists and writers, socialites and partygoers, all set against the rhythms of the Jazz Age.”

The exhibition will be curated by Robin Muir, Curator of the Vogue 100: A Century of Style exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in 2016 and a Contributing Editor to Vogue (to which Beaton himself contributed for over 50 years).

The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated hardback catalogue, featuring around 150 beautifully reproduced works by Cecil Beaton and his contemporaries. In addition to the works illustrated there is an essay by Robin Muir, and biographies for each of the ‘Bright Young Things’. The catalogue will be available from 12 March 2020 via the Gallery shops and online npg.org.uk/shop

The exhibition will tour the U.K. to the Millennium Gallery, Sheffield from 25 June – 18 October 2020 and The Wilson, Cheltenham’s art gallery and museum from 14 November 2020 – 28 February 2021.

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