Cecil Beaton’s portraits from a golden age will be brought together for the first time in a major new exhibition opening at the National Portrait Gallery next March.
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.
You can expect to see the leading cast, many of whom he would become close to, and who – in those early years helped refine his remarkable photographic style – artists and friends Rex Whistler and 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. As you can imagine, 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.
Mrs Freeman-Thomas by Cecil Beaton, 1928. © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s
Cecil Beaton by Paul Tanqueray, 1937. National Portrait Gallery, London © Estate of Paul Tanqueray
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 Bright Young Things at Wilsford by Cecil Beaton, 1927. © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s
Oliver Messel by Cecil Beaton, 1932. © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s
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 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,” Robin Muir remarked.
Cecil Beaton’s Bright Young Things runs from 12 March – 7 June 2020 at the National Portrait Gallery, London. Discover more at npg.org.uk.
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