BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Sir Cecil Beaton and the English-Speaking Union, who could imagine a more perfect pairing?
Andrew Ginger, speaking recently on his Rizzoli masterpiece Cecil Beaton at Home (surely the lushest weaving together of delicious photographs and fine interior design in publication) once again took the English-Speaking Union into the pantheon of popular programs.
Sir Cecil Beaton—the flamboyant and self-created photographer, costume designer, author, and playwright—planned country and town homes where his close friend Greta Garbo, along with the brightest and cleverest of the past century, played.
Fabulous photos shared by Ginger at his talk showed picnics where guests dressed as 18th century shepherds; a view of his Rutland Court dining room, where the floor was a carpet of artificial grass and flowers; and poignant photos of Marilyn Monroe. Beaton had photographed Marilyn for a Vanity Fair article, presciently saying: “It will probably end in tears.”
We asked Andrew Ginger what he thinks has fascinated so many people about Sir Cecil.
“There simply has not been another artist like him. No one else at Vogue could take devastatingly beautiful images of people, draw and paint them, and also write funny, insightful articles about them. No other photographer in the mid-20th century won three Oscars and four Tonys for designing for stage and screen, or published over 30 books, including some of the best diaries of the century, or had endless exhibitions of paintings. In addition, he found time to design textiles, carpets, ties, ceramics, dresses, swimwear, interiors, and an impressive garden.”
“In his own day, though he was a celebrity, he was undervalued by the establishment because his work was with the camera and dominated by fashion and the stage. Since his death, from our own standpoint in this more visual age, we can appreciate his legacy far better. He brought the photographer out from under the black cloth and from behind the tripod to make him a personality and artist in his own right. He left such a huge amount of art behind, I think he will be continually rediscovered by delighted generations to come.”
Andrew described at length how how Beaton’s interior designs related directly to the way in which he re-designed his own life.
“Cecil was not an interior decorator in the modern professional sense. He decorated for himself and for his publicity. When his career was beginning, he wanted to avoid the impression he was a professional photographer with a studio, so he got used to improvising at home. He also realized that he could only really ‘get on’ in society if his home had glamour.
“His domestic space was therefore his ‘studio’ and the place to impress the many famous faces who came to him to be photographed. Caring so much about small details, Cecil’s interiors were minutely crafted to suit an impression of himself as an arbiter of taste and sophistication, as well as a person at the hub of high society.
“In New York, where Cecil stayed almost every winter to work, he was invited to decorate a succession of hotel suites by his friend Prince Serge Obolensky. The hotel got the publicity that Cecil’s original decoration always attracted and Cecil got to stay in a space he liked for a discount price. Every suite had to be different from the last, so his creativity was constantly challenged. He always came up with something that reflected the times but said something highly original.”
Often called one of the last century’s most extroverted people, Sir Cecil would have loved the group gathered for the ESU lecture and dinner in his honor.
Event photos by Bob Carl.