If ever there was a flamboyant series of works to mark the grand return of exhibition visiting after a year’s traumatic hiatus, this is it. Originally scheduled to be shown at the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) first in 2020, Cecil Beaton’s Bright Young Things only ended up being open in London for a week before Covid-19 hit.
So, we are fortunate in Sheffield to have this touring photography exhibition here until 4 July 2021, part of the regular ongoing partnership between Sheffield Museums and the NPG. Curated by photography writer Robin Muir, formerly picture editor at Vogue, this vast series of Beaton’s works along with accompanying albums, catalogues and paintings have, as ever, been beautifully staged by the team at the Millennium Gallery. The space is calling out for a fancy-dress party to be held there.
The exhibition starts with a poignant image of the young Cecil Beaton, sitting in bed as a child, where we are told he is reading his mother’s fashion magazines. And this, in a sense, paves the way for what follows during the decadent period of the bright young things during the 1920s and 30s. Throughout the exhibition, we get to know something of Cecil Beaton (1904-1980) – the man, the artist, the impresario, the dandy, the performer, the socialite. Wide-eyed and long-lashed, experimenting with gender and identity, and relationships with men and women, he comes across as at once both self-styled narcissist, yet somehow often hidden behind a costumed façade – in drag, as Thomas Gainsborough, and even as a rabbit. He gave himself a pseudonym, Carlo Crivelli, perhaps revealing that sometimes the limelight was too much.
Despite the majority of works being monochrome, this show is utterly colourful. Eccentric garden parties, elite society friends and dazzling debutantes, upper class acquaintances dressed up to the nines posing as animals, gods, and statues – the people portrayed in Beaton’s works are nothing if not over the top. A short moving image piece is not dissimilar from something we may find on TikTok today: a dog nonchalantly cocks its leg onto a hedge while the bright young things act out a quasi-tragic, quasi-vulgar scene reminiscent of Ophelia drowning in a river. Backdrops to the sitters are a real highlight and include quirky use of silver foil, vivid contrast spots and stripes, and arcadian garden scenes. The decadence is both amusing and yet sickly.
As with many exhibitions curated by the National Portrait Gallery, this is a multi-layered show: of interest to photographers and fashionistas alike, there’s also (an elite) social history focus, a who’s who of the bohemian world of the 1920s and 30s. Beaton’s tremendous fall from grace due to his anti-Semitism is only briefly mentioned: his later ‘redemption’ through war art and royal photography is not part of the remit of this exhibition. But of course, there’s a fascinating deeper look at the man – his bullying by and lifelong hostility with Evelyn Waugh, his friendship with the Sitwells (from Renishaw), his relationships with writers and artists (particularly Stephen Tennant and Rex Whistler) and the patrons who supported him. It really is all about ‘who you know’. Whether this matters to audiences who may not know the people in the works is another question.
This portrayal of an elite class at play may make you gasp in delight, leaving you wanting more, or it may leave you gasping for air.