Cecil Beaton’s Bright Young Things by Robin Muir

In July 1927 Evelyn Waugh confided to his diary: “I went to another party the other night in Brook Street. I don’t know who the host was. Everyone was dressed up and for the most part looking rather ridiculous. Olivia Plunket Greene had had her hair dyed and curled and was dressed to look like [the leading socialite] Brenda Dean Paul. She seemed so unhappy.”

The host was a Captain Neil McEacharn and the evening that Waugh so ill-enjoyed was an Impersonation Party, or Living Celebrity Party. Everyone was there, darling. The actress Tallulah Bankhead was dressed as a Wimbledon tennis star, the stage designer Oliver Messel came as Tallulah Bankhead, Cecil Beaton was gussied up as the Edwardian actress Lillie Langtry, and the socialite Stephen Tennant made a rather alarming-looking Queen Marie of Romania — he was shrouded in so much tulle, he was surely a fire hazard.

It was this party that caused the Daily Express to ask: “Who, then, are the Bright Young Things?”

Party Season

The answer to that question is contained in this book, an upmarket coffee table affair that was published to go alongside a (now mothballed) National Portrait Gallery exhibition. Cecil Beaton’s Bright Young Things is a collection of the society photographer’s work from the 1920s and 1930s.

It’s a gorgeous affair. There are numerous silvery portraits of Phoebe Waller-Bridge lookalikes, interwar beauties and socialites, all bobs, cheekbones and elbows; the men are prettier and poutier still — they look as if they have escaped from a Marc Almond album cover.

There are some wonderfully eccentric images, such as Edith Sitwell dressed up as a medieval effigy, lying on the floor, covered in lilies; or Nancy Cunard in skullcap, her arms covered with giant bracelets; or Lord Berners in 18th-century French costume and pig mask. Possibly the most outrageously camp photograph is of seven Bright Young Things, including Beaton, posing as idealised Watteau shepherds. The rouge on Tennant’s cheeks glows brighter than a Chernobyl reactor.

There are silvery portraits of interwar beauties and socialites, all bobs, cheekbones and elbows; the men are prettier and poutier still.

Robin Muir, the exhibition’s curator, does a neat job of introducing the rich, famous and posh characters whom the young Beaton photographed, and their world of parties, pageants, charity matinees, evenings of tableaux vivants.

Waugh satirised this empty-headed, glitzy scene in his second novel, Vile Bodies (1930). I often, though, thought the names he conjured up for that satire were rather silly, the characters too preposterous. This book makes you rethink that, especially because so many of the individuals contained within have absurd nicknames — “Boy”, “Eggie”, “Buffles”, “Pempie”, “Dadie”.

A Bright Young Thing in red, green, and blue: Tallulah Bankhead, in a watercolor by Beaton.

And it is hard to believe that the Maharani of Cooch Behar really existed (she was a hit on the fox-hunting circuit in Leicestershire), or Clarita de Uriburu, the Argentine socialite (her second cousin staged a successful military coup in 1930), or the Marquesa de Casa Maury (this skinny beauty, Beaton said, not unfairly, was “the first living Modigliani I ever saw”).

Circle of Influence

Yes, it was a mad, mad world that Beaton moved in. Here is one of Muir’s deadpan descriptions: “Lady Eleanor Smith took up journalism, joined a travelling circus and became a writer of cult novels”; I enjoyed the entry for Lady Alexander, who “was invariably a conspicuous sight in silver and ostrich feathers, resembling in later years nothing so much as a female impersonator”. Beaton said that she “she exuded a strong pharmaceutical odour”.

It can be a very funny book. I loved this Daily Express gossip column snippet: “The Honourable Stephen Tennant arrived in an electric brougham, wearing a football jersey and earrings.” The mind boggles. Tennant’s mother ought to take a dollop of blame for her boy’s wayward ways. She compiled her offspring’s utterances into a collection called The Sayings of the Children. One emetic entry ran: “While I was running fast over the flowers on the Downs, I heard all the flowers saying ‘Stephen! Stephen!’”

Muir doesn’t skimp on fun little anecdotes. Doris, Viscountess Castlerosse had a tempestuous relationship with her husband; this perpetually warring couple were the inspiration for Amanda and Elyot in Noël Coward’s play Private Lives. Much to everyone’s surprise, she began an affair with Beaton. “I never knew Doris was a lesbian,” was the cutting observation made by the viscount when he saw her trotting around London with her new beau.

Waugh apparently used to tell this story about Anne Armstrong-Jones, the future mother-in-law to Princess Margaret, visiting her new husband’s Irish estates. She came upon a turf cabin where a crone sat in pig dung, smoking a pipe and complaining of the roof. “My dear, don’t change a thing, it’s simply you,” the vapid woman was supposed to have declared.

The Hon Lois Sturt was summoned to Marylebone police court in July 1924 for speeding and failing to stop. She had been hurtling across London as part of a motorised treasure hunt; these were a craze among BYTs. She was fined six guineas and lost her driving licence for three months. “It’s ridiculous,” she wailed. “I didn’t know there were speed limits.”

The precocious Brian Howard (Anthony Blanche of Brideshead Revisited was based on him) at school produced The Eton Candle, a book championing modernist poetry. The Old Etonian poet laureate Robert Bridges refused to contribute; with utter teenage confidence, Howard remarked that it was “amazing how some people will squander their opportunities, isn’t it?”

This sharp-tongued young man never fulfilled his promise. As Waugh, who had been so bewitched by his brilliance, later remarked: “He dazzled me rather 25 years ago, but I went in terror of him in later years. I was always afraid he would suddenly rush at me in some public place and hit me, and there would be some painful publicity: ‘middle-aged novelist assaulted in West End hotel.’”

“It’s ridiculous,” wailed the Hon Lois Sturt. “I didn’t know there were speed limits.”

It’s ironic that the two chroniclers of the Bright Young Things had a longstanding enmity. Beaton and Waugh attended Heath Mount prep school in Hampstead. There Waugh bullied Beaton; the old novelist remembered Beaton “as a tender and very pretty little boy. The tears on his long eyelashes used to provoke the sadism of youth and my cronies and I tormented him on the excuse that he was reputed to enjoy his music lessons.” What a brute.

Young creatives: Anita Loos, author of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and Beaton in Palm Beach.

But Waugh’s savaging of the frivolous Bright Young Things gets the tone right, rather than the flattery of Beaton, who in his first show at Cooling Galleries in 1927 said that his artistic approach was “to make my work fantastic, whimsical and amusing as possible”. Lord Metroland in Vile Bodies declares that “I don’t understand them and I don’t want to. They had a chance after the war that no generation has ever had. There was a whole civilisation to be saved and remade. And all they seem to do is play the fool.” Whimsical tomfoolery doesn’t seem to be the right way to respond to a smashed continent.

Still, with our present grimness in mind, they are very lovely to look at, a tonic even. And they still have power to amuse, decades later. In Lady in Waiting, Anne Glenconner’s witty memoir of 2019, she recalls her various encounters with her husband Colin Tennant’s Uncle Stephen (“the last professional beauty”, Osbert Sitwell quipped).

She remembers visiting him in Wilsford Manor in Wiltshire. On one occasion he rasped to Colin: “You’re looking a bit pale, darling boy. Don’t you remember what I told you? You must put on a little eye shadow and a touch of pink on the lips.” He then proceeded to dab his make-up on Colin’s lips.

He was also a diligent letter writer; they arrived doused with sickly scent and “filled with obscene drawings of sailors in frightfully tight trousers”. Glenconner reflected generously that “perhaps he thought it would do me good to look at pictures of extended penises”.