Cecil Beaton's unseen party photographs

The charmed world of the Bright Young Things at play through Cecil Beaton's private lens

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Cecil Beaton: Unseen
"The Countess of Pembroke in Beaton’s musical 'Heil Cinderella'", 1939 Courtesy of Sotheby’s Cecil Beaton Studio Archive

Academy award-winning designer, longtime Vogue, Vanity Fair and even royal photographer, International Best Dressed List Hall of Fame alumnus, British war correspondent – it's fair to say that the late British photographer and renowned socialite Cecil Beaton was a busy man. But, as a new exhibition at Wilton House shows, Beaton was never too busy to refuse an excuse to party. Next month photos of his wildly extravagant parties and costume balls with Britain's elite from his private albums will be unveiled.

Part of over 100,000 negatives owned by Sotheby’s Cecil Beaton Studio Archive, the series showcases Beaton’s intimate relationship with high-society. “Guests came in the knowledge that they were to exchange reality for a complete escape into the realms of fantasy” said Beaton, recalling the 15 decadent and debauched years he spent at Ashcombe House. Most of this series was shot at the infamously grand Wiltshire home, the only place for lavish, non-stop pageantries and parties.

Described as a never-aging, “worldly Peter Pan”, Beaton would order in the finest lobster from Fortnum and Mason’s and paper cotillion flowers from Paris, while guests would cause a stir in a bid to wear as little clothing as possible. There would be egg-and-spoon races, alongside Shakespeare performances in the garden, while illustrious friends like HG Wells and Salvador Dali were encouraged to delve into Beaton’s infamous dressing-up chest.

We spoke to Joanna Ling, the curator of Sotheby’s Cecil Beaton Studio Archive.

Dazed Digital: What sort of photographer was Beaton?

Joanna Ling: He was one of the great British portrait photographers of the 20th century, a great chronicler of his times – always a trendsetter and always able to adapt himself through the decades.  He tapped into that world of the Bright Young Things in the 1920s, forty years later he was photographing Mick Jagger on the set of Performance. Although most well known for his portraits and fashion photography he produced many striking images from the Second World War.

DD: Why was he so interested in escapism?

Joanna Ling: I think it was all part of his escape from what he saw as his conventional, middle class background. He used it as an entrée into a more sophisticated world that he desperately wanted to be part of. He could reinvent himself.

DD: As the Head of the Cecil Beaton Studio archive, what do you take from his photographs?

Joanna Ling: We hold over 100,000 negatives in the archive and there's always something new to be found.  It's his own studio collection of images and I find it a fascinating insight into his life. Although his more staged studio shots are some of my favourites, working on this exhibition has meant a lot of research into his personal albums which gives a wonderful glimpse into his private life at home with friends.

DD: What was the outside opinion of his parties at Ashcombe House?

Joanna Ling: They were very much part of the 'Bright Young Things' scene whose excesses held a certain fascination and notoriety. Beaton describes how the new craze for sunbathing led to some guests wearing bathing suits that gave “occasion for scandalous gossip”!

DD: Do you think Beaton was the first photographer to tackle the cult of celebrity?

Joanna Ling: He was certainly one of the first to document and celebrate the “glamour” of the Bright Young Things. His artful images of them dressed as Meissen shepherds or shepherdesses at an Arcadian picnic or studio shots of them dressed for a London ball or pageant promoted the “charmed” world they lived in to the general public.

Cecil Beaton at Wilton runs between 18th–21st April and 3rd May – 14th September.

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