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March 14 2020
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Photographs by Cecil Beaton, himself a Bright Young Thing who documented the glamour of the time, are on view now at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

The phrase “Bright Young Things” was dreamed up by an unknown journalist almost a century ago. It conjured a social phenomenon: a collection of privileged youth, famed from the mid- to late 1920s for their tireless hedonism, who symbolized an almighty rupture with a world still fixated upon the Great War. Iconoclasts with Burke’s Peerage pedigrees, the Bright Young Things laid waste to the past with yah-boo-sucks heedlessness. They were frivolous, and thus should have been easy to dismiss, but frivolity was the point—for where had good behavior gotten the previous generation? It was a fair question.

Recognizing that here was, indeed, a phenomenon, the newspapers tantalized their readers to tea-spilling distraction with the febrile antics of such characters as the Labour M.P.’s daughter Elizabeth Ponsonby and the baron’s son Stephen Tennant, who became early media celebrities; tales of treasure hunts through London, parties in swimming pools with “bathwater cocktails,” and costume balls and nightclubs; and the relentless jabber of the new slang (“How too too sick-making”). Now, as the 20s roll around once more, the National Portrait Gallery stages “Cecil Beaton’s Bright Young Things,” a celebratory exhibition of photographs and paintings.

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