Friends First – Cecil Beaton's Bright Young Things

Unknown, The Bright Young Things at Wilsford, 1927. The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive

This spring Cecil Beaton’s Bright Young Things will bring glittering portraits from a golden age to the Millennium Gallery in a major new exhibition direct from the National Portrait Gallery, London. As a Friend, you’re among the very first to find out more about the exhibition and what you can expect to see when it opens in May, restrictions allowing.

Sheffield Museums’ Head of Exhibitions, Alison Morton, has been leading on the installation and shares more about the remarkable works you’ll be able to see when the doors open next month:

Cecil Beaton’s Bright Young Things originated at the National Portrait Gallery and is the latest exhibition to come to Sheffield through our ongoing partnership with them. The exhibition has been curated by Robin Muir – Robin is a writer and curator who specialises in photography and curated the National Portrait Gallery’s 2016 exhibition, Vogue 100: A Century of Style. He’s also a Contributing Editor at Vogue, a publication which Beaton himself contributed to for over 50 years.

Cecil Beaton, Oliver Messel in his costume for Paris in Helen,  1932. The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive

The exhibition brings together over 150 images, drawn from the Cecil Beaton Studio Archive and loans from several national and international collections. We’re really thrilled to be working with the National Portrait Gallery to show the exhibition here in Sheffield – the original run in London was brought to a close by the pandemic after just one week, so it really is an unmissable opportunity to see these works shown on such a scale.

Cecil Beaton (1904–80) was one of the great creative figures of 20th century Britain; he was best known as a portrait and fashion photographer, primarily through his work for Vogue from 1924 to 1979. However, he was also a significant war photographer, as well as an illustrator and caricaturist, a writer and commentator on taste and manners, a world-renowned theatre designer and art director, and an influential stylist of his own homes.

Paul Tanqueray, Cecil Beaton, 1937. National Portrait Gallery, London. © Estate of Paul Tanqueray.

The exhibition focuses on Beaton’s early photographs that established his career. Born in Hampstead to a prosperous timber merchant, Ernest Beaton and his wife Esther (‘Etty’), Beaton was given his first camera in 1914, aged ten, and the exhibition chronicles his rise from suburban schoolboy to a celebrated society figure. It’s particularly fascinating to see that some of his earliest work in the exhibition – images of his glamorous sisters Nancy and Baba, and the Vogue portrait of his friend George Rylands as ‘The Duchess of Malfi’, published when he was just a student – set him on the road to fame.

Cecil Beaton, Nancy and Baba Beaton reflected in piano lid, 1936. The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive

The world of the Bright Young Things recorded by Beaton is an extravagant, glamorous, stylish and undeniably privileged one. They had the means and freedom to socialise during the period between the First and Second World Wars. Robin Muir writes in his essay in the exhibition catalogue: “It was a world to which Cecil was instinctively drawn and to which he felt he belonged.” What is clear from the images in the exhibition is that it was a world that sparked great creativity in Beaton, one rooted in spectacle, playfulness, and experimentation.

Cecil Beaton, Paula Gellibrand, Marquesa de Casa Maury,1928. The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive

The exhibition features many famous faces – Hollywood stars Tallulah Bankhead and Anna May Wong, writers Daphne du Maurier and Evelyn Waugh, glamorous socialites Edwina Mountbatten and Diana Guinness (née Mitford) to name just a few. Beaton’s celebrated sitters, many of whom he became close to, would help refine his photographic style throughout his early years. But even where the subjects are less well known, the stories behind the images are no less compelling. Each portrait has a remarkable tale to tell – glamour, drama, love affairs, not to mention some stunning costumes, they’ve got it all.

Cecil Beaton. Daphne de Maurier at Sussex Gardens, 1926. The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive

From these auspicious beginnings Beaton’s career went from strength to strength – photographing royalty, winning two Oscars for My Fair Lady and Gigi, and in 1968, becoming the subject of Britain’s first ever retrospective of a living photographer at a national museum, fittingly, at the National Portrait Gallery. It’s in the early works you can see the beginnings of such a successful career, as well as a glimpse into a truly unique aspect of British cultural history. As much as anything though, the images you’ll see in the exhibition are a real celebration of fun, of the connection we find with people, of the creativity that can inspire and of the joy it can bring – and that’s something I think we can all appreciate right now.

Cecil Beaton’s Bright Young Things opens at the Millennium Gallery mid-May 2021 and continues until Wednesday 4 July 2021. You can also find out more about Beaton and the exhibitions in a series of short films presented by Robin Muir here.


Images (top to bottom):
 

  • Unknown, The Bright Young Things at Wilsford, 1927. The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive
  • Cecil Beaton, Oliver Messel in his costume for Paris in Helen,  1932. The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive
  • Paul Tanqueray, Cecil Beaton, 1937. National Portrait Gallery, London. © Estate of Paul Tanqueray.
  • Cecil Beaton, Nancy and Baba Beaton reflected in piano lid, 1936. The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive
  • Cecil Beaton, Paula Gellibrand, Marquesa de Casa Maury,1928. The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive
  • Cecil Beaton. Daphne de Maurier at Sussex Gardens, 1926. The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive

 

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