Magazine article The Spectator

Essay in Biography

Magazine article The Spectator

Essay in Biography

Article excerpt


Essay in biography

Cecil Beaton: Portraits

National Portrait Gallery, until 31 May

We Are The People: Postcards from the Collection of Tom Phillips

National Portrait Gallery, until 20 June

Glamour has settled on the National Portrait Gallery like a flock of starlings. It is the centenary of Cecil Beaton's birth and over 100 portraits from the five decades of his gilded career have been brought together to celebrate 'the most significant British-born photographer of the 20th century'. The last time such a tribute to Beaton was mounted was when Roy Strong organised a ground-breaking retrospective at the NPG in 1968, and put the gallery on the social map. The exhibition was memorably designed by the distinguished balletomane Richard Buckle, the great and the good all turned out, and the public flocked along. Thirty-six years later, they're flocking again: the gallery was packed with young and old the afternoon I visited it.

Photography hadn't really been taken seriously as a form of portraiture before that 1968 exhibition, and it was only in 1972 that the trustees changed the Gallery's rules to allow photographs to enter the permanent collection, from which they'd previously been excluded. Nowadays the collection is far too reliant on photography, given the dearth of good portrait painters, but in the 1960s Beaton's sheer elegance and style were a welcome antidote to the usual restraints of official portraiture. And he still makes a strong appeal with his Bright Young Things and idealised portrayals, his knack of seeing the world as theatre, and his ability shamelessly to reinvent his subjects in the Beaton mode. As he said: 'The fashion photographer's job is to stage an apotheosis.' And he was certainly adept at that.

The NPG's exhibition, sponsored by Herbert Smith in association with Sotheby's and Vogue, starts with the 1927 four faces self-portrait and swings straight into its stride with Edith Sitwell posing as a Gothic tomb sculpture, Rex Whistler as a Watteau guitarist and Siegfried Sassoon lurking at a piano. Other beauties are interspersed (a young Lee Miller in New York) among the silver foil and tinsel and elaborate backdrops. Nancy Cunard is portrayed against a Bridget Riley-type polka dot fabric, flaunting a vast array of primitive bangles and bracelets to announce her espousal of all things African. As we move into the Thirties, the images get less precious and more sophisticatedly camp. The statuesque Gwili Andre, who sadly vanished without trace, Orson Welles grappling with sub-surrealist props, Katharine Hepburn shooting up a long, long arm in front of the decorated helmet of a classical bust.

What is Marlene Dietrich up to in this feathers-and-flowers version of the masks of comedy and tragedy? (Or, rather, what is Beaton up to?) Aldous Huxley lifts the veil (presumably an early reference to the doors of perception), dancer Tilly Losch sports amazing headgear, and Cocteau broods amid his own drawings. There is wit here, and wicked fun. Picasso looks like a theatrical impresario, Dalì mishandles his rapier, and Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas are like warder and inmate. Nothing is left to chance - even the scribble of electric cable which intrudes into the Stein/Toklas portrait masquerades as a piece of art. (Stein said it was like a Calder mobile.) Perhaps this was Beaton's greatest period.

He is good at couples, playing off one figure against another - Walter Sickert and wife Therese Lessore, Augustus John and Dorelia, Bernard Berenson and Nicky Mariano - all of these caught in poignant old age. …

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