Maxine Freeman-Thomas dressed for Ascot in the year 2000 for the Dream of Fair Women Ball by Cecil Beaton, 1928. © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive.

In The Book of Beauty Cecil Beaton describes Paula Gellibrand, the Marquesa de Casa Maury, as having “no chin at all, an abbreviated nose, three cherries for a mouth and big pansy eyes.” To him, Gellibrand was the epitome of femininity and one of his favourite women to photograph. She appears in the current exhibition of his work at the National Portrait Gallery wearing an iridescent sequined dress with matching hat, eyelids painted with Vaseline and head turned to the side so that her “almost scrawny neck” and “general bird-like appearance” can be seen (an admired) in full.

The Silver Soap Suds (L to R: Baba Beaton, the Hon. Mrs Charles Baillie-Hamilton and Lady Bridget Poulett) by Cecil Beaton, 1930. © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive.

Gellibrand is but one of a cast of beautiful bohemians that Beaton made his name photographing in the 1920s and 30s and whose images make up the exhibition Bright Young Things. Bringing together over 150 of Beaton’s photographs, the curator, Robin Muir has said that he hopes that the exhibition will “bring to life a deliriously eccentric, glamorous and creative era.” A time which combined “high society and the avant-garde, artists and writers, socialites and partygoers, all set against the rhythms of the jazz age.”

Nancy and Baba Beaton by Cecil Beaton, 1926. © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive.

It was these ‘Bright Young People’ who turned the twenties into the Roaring Twenties through their antics: partying the nights away at the Ritz, stealing policemen’s helmets and their famous London-wide treasure hunts. The latter had been conceived in 1924 by Loelia, Duchess of Westminster, labelled by Tatler as “squadron leader of Society’s Young Brigade”, the actress Enid Raphael and the Jungman sisters, Zita and Theresa - described by Beaton as “a pair of decadent 18th-century angels made of wax."

Anna May Wong by Cecil Beaton, 1929. © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive.

Beaton himself began as the son of a suburban middle-class timber merchant, but the social upheaval engendered by the Great War and the early patronage of the poet and critic Edith Sitwell facilitated his transformation into glittering society figure, longtime contributor to Vogue and photographer to the Royals. His own avaricious personality and otherworldly photography contributed to the beginnings of the cult of celebrity: a melding of reality, art and artifice and the creation of a world of dazzling spectacle.

Cecil Beaton’s Bright Young Things is at the National Portrait Gallery, London from 12th March to 7th June.

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