In the 1930s, Cecil Beaton transformed his rented Ashcombe House into a pastoral wonderland that served as a backdrop, mirror and extension of the constructed self. Through a shared body consciousness and a collective scopic drive, Beaton fully incorporated his house and its flow of invitees into his identity. In this article, I treat self-performance, the optic-haptic interplay and fashion in relation to interior space, with Ashcombe as an interwar paradise in suspension. Considering modernity and the counter-canon, this article draws from psychoanalyst Paul Schilder’s contemporaneous writing on the elastic ‘body-image’, Oscar Wilde’s blurring of surface and identity, fashion’s temporality and haptic photography, while paying close attention to the material manifestation of theory that characterises Ashcombe. Short of designating the house as a form of dress, this article contributes to the discussion of fashion time, presenting Beaton’s forwards-and-backwards looking at Ashcombe as a synecdoche of this relationship. Like the photograph, marked by reciprocal touching and looking, Beaton’s Ashcombe deals in exchanged gazes and reflections along the blurred lines of the private and the public, the authentic and the composed, the self and the other, the then and the now.
Ashcombe, 1937: Cecil Beaton is in a self-made wonderland. The grounds spill over with flowers, ribbons and twinkling lights from London and Paris. The Embassy Club plays in the stables until 7 a.m.; the Bright Young People frolic. Thirty tables are draped like ballerinas, ballet costumier Madame Karinska had sent dresses by train from London, and everyone is in costume.
Looking past himself in an ornately framed mirror (1937, Fig.1) Beaton wears an eighteenth-century style jacket of cream corduroy – now in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London – dotted with pink muslin flowers, bunches of green wool yarn, plastic eggshells and egg whites, and silk breeches with embroidered beetles. A painted rabbit mask completes the costume. Worn on the back of his head, the misplaced mask is purely connotative, suggesting Beaton’s cheeky desire to invest in the essence of masquerade while still spotlighting his identity and the unveiling thereof. Analysing Beaton’s career in 1935 as a self-made dandy, diarist, photographer and costume designer – he would later dress Leslie Caron in Gigi (1958) and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady (1964) – Jean Cocteau had once called him ‘Malice in Wonderland’, citing a life spent in an ‘…unreality made up of fun, so much too much fun…limited to the joys of certain superficial forms of beauty, to sensual delights…with too many people, too many quick light sketches…and photographs galore.’ But here at the Fête Champêtre, the most elaborate of Ashcombe House’s fancy dress galas, as throughout the Ashcombe years, Beaton doubles as the White Rabbit, elegantly dressed and preoccupied with the passage of time.
There is something hallucinogenic about this portrait by Gordon Anthony, with its vanishing reference points and Janus-faced Beaton. In looking towards his reflection, Beaton appears not to see himself but rather to make eye-contact with the viewer, his gaze doubly returned through the camera lens and mirror. The viewer, positioned in line with the camera, embodies the photographer. She even enters the picture to stand just behind Beaton, as he indicates with the indexical, beckoning gesture of his left hand. With the right hand, his pointing to the mirror bounces back, suggestive of a unison between the ‘I’ of the subject, the ‘you’ of the viewer, and the picture-making that binds them together.
Self-aware and self-reflexive, this curious photograph is synecdochic of Ashcombe House and the dynamics of mutual looking that the house engendered. Beaton’s tenure, lasting until 1945, could be loosely read as a metaphorical history of British high society before and after the Second World War. In 1930, he rented Ashcombe from Mr. R. W. Borley, who had acquired the remains of the eighteenth-century country house after the First World War, in exchange for fifty pounds a year and extensive renovations. Improvements included the installation of electricity, murals by Dalí and French fashion illustrator Christian ‘Bébé’ Bérard and the decoration of a circus-themed bedroom. Ashcombe’s springtime discovery, rehabilitation as a ruin in Wiltshire and endless parade of weekend guests heralded a paradise regained. Its status as a manor house, otherwise evocative of a post-war return to order, was balanced by its joyful baroque resistance to the streamlined demands of modernism and military masculinity. Its bombing, the deaths of many of its Bright Young regulars and the devastation of its loss signaled not only the end of Beaton’s lease but the end of an historical era.
This article, however, aims not to apply the decadence of a generation to the rise and fall of an estate, but rather to consider the house’s embodiment and extension of Beaton’s identity and confected pedigree. Belying an initial appearance as a site of mere pastoral lounging and impromptu pairings, closer consideration of Ashcombe reveals the tight direction Beaton maintained to control his character and its mise en scène. Marked by performative backwards and forwards-looking, both house and portrait are anchored in the contemporaneous crafting of identity and memory.
Cecil Beaton and fashion and Cecil Beaton and the interior are not novel subjects. In Cecil Beaton at Home: An Interior Life (2016), Andrew Ginger crafts a biography by way of an intimate view of Beaton’s houses and hotel suites. Benjamin Wild’s A Life in Fashion: The Wardrobe of Cecil Beaton (2016) dresses a portrait of the photographer through his Lanz of Salzburg jackets, fur gauntlet gloves and Savile Row tailored suits. These liens have been further emphasised in recent exhibitions in London, such as ‘Cecil Beaton, Thirty from the 1930s: Fashion, Film and Fantasy’, a case study in the Fashion and Textile Museum’s Night & Day: 1930s Fashion and Photographs (2018) and Cecil Beaton’s Bright Young Things at the National Portrait Gallery (2020). While drawing from this literature, ‘Beaton Through the Looking Glass’ is not an analysis of a photography career and does not specifically consider Beaton amidst the avant-garde celebrities, artists and Bright Young partygoers with whom he established himself. Rather, this article traces the thread between Beaton, dress and decoration during the interwar years through notions of fashion time and contemporaneous identity theory. I address the confluence of self-performance, interior and fashion in terms of Austrian neurologist and psychoanalyst Paul Schilder’s concept of ‘body-image’, developed in 1935 as the synthetic image of ourselves that we envision, forever in motion and developing against prior versions of itself. Beaton articulated his country manor as an extension of his body-image, reflected by the bodied experiences of his invitees. In engaging their senses and demanding their participation, he manipulated their body-images and experiences to reiterate his own, while at the same time opening himself up to outsiders. With this symphony of postural models playing off one another, Ashcombe staged not just the definition of the body but also its flux and fluidity.
I explore the interplay between body-images through the 1937 Fête Champêtre and Beaton’s photograph albums. An interwar throwback to the grand eighteenth-century French garden party, the Fête Champêtre was thrown near the apex of Beaton’s Vogue career (indeed, he would be fired one year later, after inserting anti-Semitic phrases into a New York society illustration). Having achieved transatlantic renown by the age of thirty-three, photographing the likes of Virginia Woolf, Marlene Dietrich and Anna May Wong, Beaton drew invitees from all over the world to his pastoral fantasy, a piece of veritable performance art that lasted past dawn. The Fête Champêtre featured at least two press photographers and was written up in Life magazine, The Sketch, The Bystander and The Tatler. Even less elaborate gatherings at Ashcombe could produce an album’s worth of pictures, for Beaton seldom found himself without a camera in hand.
Ashcombe was elevated to an enchanted otherworldliness through its depiction in diaries, Vogue articles and photographs. In April 1948, three years after the end of his lease, Beaton expressed in his diary his urge to write about Ashcombe ‘…before the memories were any the less acute.’ But the eponymous memoir Ashcombe: The Story of a Fifteen Year Lease (1949), existed as fragments in diaries or discussed amongst the regulars well before its publication and even before the end of the lease. As British film producer John Sutro, who had composed the music for the summer Fête Champêtre, wrote to Beaton after his last visit to Ashcombe, ‘I am glad you are going to write a book about Ashcombe. I think it should be made clear that we were not a group of delinquent Bright Young Things …’ – the aristocratic, Bohemian set who delighted and scandalised the press with their hedonism, fancy dress parties and claim on 1920s London nightlife, and whose documentation marked the beginning of Beaton’s photography career. Instead, Sutro hoped, Ashcombe would capture a sense of pure, unmediated pleasure.
Of course, described and depicted in the memoir and photo albums, Ashcombe is essentially mediated. Beaton eternalised the ephemeral by inserting himself into the aesthetic canon of 1930s British high society and its nineteenth-century literary heritage, joining Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray in its treatment of the stylised body, identity and interior. Photography further extended Beaton’s body-image, not just through the physical projection of the camera in space but also through the haptic and composite album. Like the photograph, marked by reciprocal touching and looking, Ashcombe deals in exchanged gazes and reflections along the blurred lines of the private and the public, the authentic and the composed, the self and the other. Drawing from visuo-material theories of identity and notions of fashion time, this article considers the various modes of representation surrounding Ashcombe as an extension of the body, while capturing the poignancy and ready nostalgia of an at once timeless and finite, and thus intrinsically fashionable, paradise.
More than a house, Ashcombe is a text—a play, a memory, an atmosphere—fixed by the flash of a camera. It is Ashcombe the memoir and “Ashcombe”, as in Vogue articles, nestled in the Wiltshire Downs, captured upon ever-overlapping society and diary pages, repeated in the infinity mirror of the photo album. Pinning down lost time, Beaton effectively romanticised the Ashcombe years by distilling them into a compact 124-paged memoir. Written as a novel, with a dust jacket painted by Bright Young artist Rex Whistler, Ashcombe: The Story of a Fifteen Year Lease (1949, Fig.2) is steeped in literary tropes – stylised exaggeration, affected accents, fairytale motifs, Beaton’s referral to himself in the third person – that consecrate the house’s storybook quality. Through rose-coloured prose interspersed with line drawings and hors-texte photographs, Beaton describes his long week-end parties and documents his photographic impulse, amateur filmmaking and the Fête Champêtre that turned Ashcombe into a literal theatrical set. Amidst the lush descriptions, a prominent network of themes emerges, interweaving performance, materiality and temporality.
Beginning on a spring afternoon in the Wiltshire Downs in 1930, the memoir presents Ashcombe’s acquisition as both spontaneous and fateful. Beaton has only to mention a wistful desire for his own house in the country for writer and artistic society hostess Edith Olivier to remember a cottage stumbled upon by sculptor Stephen Tomlin. Motoring through the overgrown downland in meandering pursuit, Beaton, Olivier, Tomlin and Whistler despair – ‘It can’t possibly be this way. Nobody would live up here… We’ll get lost!…We’ll never be able to find the road back.’ – until, like the Sleeping Beauty, it emerges.
‘Sleeping among the drooping ilex trees stood a small cluster of cedarwood-coloured brick buildings, elegantly faced with stone. From the moment I saw this haunting, haunted sight, in its aura of lazy beauty, I knew Ashcombe would belong to me,’ Beaton writes in his diary. This serendipitous nature permeates the memoir – Ashcombe’s decoration, the effortless reconstruction of dialogue, the loosely sketched line drawings – in opposition to the control with which Beaton directed the theatrical spectacles unfolding at Ashcombe. This dialectic is resolved in the exquisite artifice and contrived unexpectedness characterising the interwar baroque. In Baroque Between the Wars, Jane Stevenson proposes an alternative to the immediately available interwar aesthetic of ‘…functional, useful, masculine, straight, unadorned, and sincere…’ modernism. Modernism was not hegemonic and as such engendered an array of equally relevant ‘…frivolous, prodigal, feminine, queer, decorative, and equivocal…’ reactions – this is the new baroque. It applies not only to the fine arts but also to dress, photography, theatre, decoration and entertainment. Threading throughout is one of baroque’s design principles: the revelry in ‘…pleasurable shocks and playful deceptions…’, an awareness of its own artifice and a nuanced insistence on the material.
Ashcombe embodied these baroque ideals through the fluidity of material and medium and the blurring between self and space. Beaton played with the dissolution of boundaries, associating different swathes of his professional and private identities through Ashcombe’s disparate design campaign and fairground aesthetic. The circus bedroom’s centrepiece was a red and gold carousel four-poster bed, designed by Whistler. Beaton decorated his bathroom with the same gold-spotted paper binding his Book of Beauty (1933), his first published book of photographs, quite practically conflating the house and its decorative materiality with photography and the literary form. His Vogue-related travels as a fashion photographer and keen eye for props allowed him to collect ‘…life-sized cupids, masses of silver and gilt candlesticks, silver bird-cages, glass witch-balls, engraved mirrors, shell pictures and crumbling Italian console-tables…’ to send home to Ashcombe. For upholstery and curtains Beaton repurposed fabrics originally designed for theatrical productions, sturdy enough to last the duration of the run of the play. He carpeted rooms with the animal baize typically used to cover pantomime wild animals, and engaged the village to sew 300,000 pearl buttons on hessian sacking curtains in patterns imitating a coster’s coat. The fluffy fabric typically used by fancy dress costumers to make cowboy trousers, dyed pink, doubled as carpeting in his sisters’ room. The incorporation of theatrical, dressed aspects not just into Ashcombe’s ethos but its very fabric thus materially reinforced the house’s thematic connections between the self, its environs and the embellishment that interlink them.
Ashcombe was at its most theatrical when peopled for week-end parties, operating in the mode of structured fantasy as guests oscillated between performing and spectating. Arabella Boxer, a writer for Vogue‘s food column, would later reflect in 1968 on Beaton’s entertaining that Beaton
…seems to regard party-giving in theatrical terms, rather as one might think of mounting a new production. He provides the setting and assembles the cast, then expects the actors to do their bit. One is conscious of this, feeling uneasily aware that more is expected of one than just to look nice and behave well.
The dramatics began before crossing the threshold, as Beaton recounts his guests’ confused advance in Ashcombe: ‘They would be faced by the back of a tumbled-down studio building with…broken statues and discarded junk. With spirits somewhat lowered by this spectacle, they would proceed under the vaulted archway of the stable building.’ Then, ‘…suddenly they were comforted by the sight of neatly mown lanes, a fluttering of white doves, and, facing them, the small dolls’ house with its open front door.’ Characters begin to mill about:
Perhaps a figure dressed in a black crinoline would come out of the doorway on her way to be photographed: …Miss Tilly Losch, dressed as a Meissen shepherdess, posturing among a flock of sheep… the host, wearing a Tyrolean suit, would dash out to give an exaggerated welcome.
Like approaching the set from the wings amidst scaffolding, pulleys and scattered props to emerge suddenly as part of the cohesive fantasia on stage, this backwards arrival effectively made unwitting actors out of the visitors.
Costume is inherent to theatrical production, and identity and alterity at Ashcombe were best expressed through dress. Rather showing his hand, Beaton encouraged all guests to come with costumes, to be photographed against the romantic background of his country house. Lady Ottoline Morrell would apricate in ‘…particularly resplendent attire with large picture hats, lace shawls, yellow brocade skirts and many rows of pearls…’. When American actress Ruth Gordon traded the Old Vic Theatre for Ashcombe, she came prepared with her entire Restoration Comedy wardrobe. Taking breakfast in bed, tending to the hens and swinging à la Fragonard, Gordon spent the entirety of her visit in fancy dress. For those who came unprepared, Beaton possessed a ready dressing-up chest. House furnishings became part of costumes, as’…flowers and blossoms were dragged from their vases to add piquancy to an improvisation: even chairs and bird-cages were utilised in making an impromptu hennin or crinoline.’ Dress thus provided the continuity between the domestic interior and the decorated self – a markedly Aesthetic principle.
The Decorative Body
Cecil Beaton does not explicitly cite Oscar Wilde in his Ashcombe writing – although he would go on to make his acting début and design the costumes for a production of Lady Windermere’s Fan at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco in 1946, just after his expulsion from Ashcombe, as well as illustrate a 1960 edition of The Importance of Being Earnest – but the two are certainly linked by their foppish performativity, appreciation for surface and principles of the body’s decorative extension. A shared interest in the sublimation of identity through portraiture invite a close comparison between the two ‘dandies’ and their texts.
In 1882, Wilde toured the United States and Canada promoting Patience, Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operetta satirising the era’s Aesthetic-inspired fashion, decoration and philosophy that he came to typify. Under the aegis of the Savoy Opera Company, Wilde instructed his American audiences on fine art, poetry and interior design in a series of lectures that linked self-promotion and the Aesthetic movement to the theatre by association. Perhaps the most well-known of these talks is ‘The House Beautiful’, which, dressed like a stage character in fur-trimmed cloaks, breeches and silk stockings, he delivered at least fifteen times. Amidst a plethora of decorative decrees emerged a theory of ostensibly democratic beauty meant to unite the maker, the viewer and individual decoration. The material, in dress and décor, is a looking glass for identity ideation, embodiment of the present and remembrance of things past…a portrait.
Shifting medium from lecture to literature, Wilde novelised his aesthetic stance in 1890. Through decorative art and portraiture, The Picture of Dorian Gray mobilises ideas of preserving beauty, suspending death, staying fashionable and stopping time. It depicts the ultimate blurring of the boundary between the self and its material representation and deals in reflections – not just the painted reflection of its titular character, but also that between the author, his decorative tenets and his identity. Having set his Faustian aesthete against a background of sumptuous interiors reflective of ‘The House Beautiful’, Wilde identified his story as ‘…an essay on decorative art …’. And background, as Dorian Gray recognises, is everything.
Dorian’s suspended beauty and youth cultivate his materialist sensitivity. Having evaded temporal ruin, his sin and soul transposed to his portrait, he considers with poignancy the material degradation of beautiful things over time. Dorian sates his nostalgia through collection and the decoration of his house. He elects fabric, the primary material of fashion, as the medium par excellence to bear and suspend the passage of time and compress spatio-temporal distance. Amongst the decadent textiles sourced from around the world is
…a large purple satin coverlid heavily embroidered with gold, a splendid piece of late seventeenth-century Venetian work that his uncle had found in a convent near Bologna… It had perhaps served often as a pall for the dead.
A funereal shroud for that vile body, it is with this purple satin – its rich colours and arrangement materially evocative of the theatre curtain – that Dorian stages the decorative outsourcing of life, cloaking his painting and secreting it away in a locked room for private viewings.
Bucolic to Wilde’s gothic, not only did certain aspects of Ashcombe’s design campaign and Beaton’s aesthetic sensibility clash with Wilde’s principles – one papered his bathroom in white and gold and loved the explicitly artificial, while the other dismissed these colours in a wallpaper and declared that ‘…nothing can exceed in ugliness artificial flowers …’ – but Beaton also enjoyed a liberty of queer expression in his work and private sphere, while Wilde’s ultimately cost him his life. Following a defamation lawsuit against the Marquess of Queensbury, his lover Lord Alfred Douglas’s father, Wilde would be tried for acts of ‘gross indecency’ and convicted to two years of imprisonment and hard labour in 1895. Dorian Gray, with its homoerotic triangle between Dorian, Basil Hallward and Lord Henry reflective of Wilde’s own homosexuality, was used as evidence against the author in his trial.
Even though the ‘Labouchère’ Amendment under which Wilde was convicted was not repealed until 1956, it would be disingenuous to equate the Victorian experience of homosexual-homosocial ‘romance of feeling’ – in Beaton’s case, bisexuality – with that of interwar high society. Appreciating Beaton’s position on the spectrum of stylised queer identity invites comparison with peer and foil Siegfried Sassoon. Like Beaton, Sassoon’s sense of self can be distilled through bound albums of photographs captured at an English country house—in this case, Lady Ottoline Morrell’s. Like Ashcombe, Garsington Manor was a bohemian Arcadia known for hosting the ‘…distinguished and eccentric.’ Both domains operated under the infectious, overwhelming desire of their hosts to curate and share their alterity.
But while Beaton wore zebra-striped slippers and selected his clothing in a size too small to show off his figure, Sassoon negotiated the complex, at times contradictory intersections of his bisexuality, intellectualism and athleticism through undemanding, comfortable, sportswear-inspired dress. In her article on photographs of Sassoon in Lady Morrell’s album collection, Lily Le Brun cites unobtrusiveness as the most secure mode for homosexual men. While the poet married in 1933, he maintained a handful of homosexual relationships, including that with Bright Young aesthete and literary muse Stephen Tennant – a patron, regular subject and intimate friend of Beaton’s who fell similarly in line with the photographer’s mode of self-presentation. Staying with Tennant’s family for his 23rd birthday in 1927 and again highlighting the lien between dress, comportment and décor, Beaton wrote, ‘I undressed and wore a flimsy pair of speckled pyjamas which completely went with the room. I wanted to eat all the books, and all the flowers and Stephen as well.’ At Ashcombe, Stephen’s guest rooms were decorated in pink and white.
Unlike Beaton’s and Tennant’s styles, the self-conscious, mediated style cultivated by Sassoon played upon its relaxed unremarkableness, adhering to the model of the healthy, everyday English man. Compounding his perceived deviation from masculine heteronormativity was his poetic passion, coded as effeminate and queer in the 1930s, which Sassoon, a decorated World War I captain, attenuated through dress: balancing the feminine élan of the poet with the masculine reticence of the soldier. When it came to his artistic depiction, Sassoon requested to be painted in hunting clothes.
While Beaton certainly self-censored, re-touching his published accounts with the same keen eye he used as a fashion photographer for ‘…drawing waists in, slenderising necks, removing unwanted lines, and presenting his subject as a vision of glamour…’, he presented himself in his published diaries as unapologetically materialistic and queer. Reflecting on his youth, an older Beaton deadpans in the 2017 documentary Love, Cecil over a photomontage of himself made-up in drag at Cambridge (1922–1925) that he may have ‘…rather like[d] shocking people.’ However, by this point in his now-international career in the 1930s, Beaton had received a dressing-down, so to speak, from Noël Coward. Criticising Beaton’s flamboyance and effeminacy, the playwright recommended he dress soberly and adopt conventional masculine mannerisms in the interest of passing. With rumours swirling in New York of his wearing makeup, Beaton had conceded in his diary in 1928 that although he ‘adore[d] maquillage and so wish[ed] that young men could paint their faces…they definitely can’t without being branded as social nuisances.’
Ashcombe, with its purposefully composed otherness and getaway nature, furnished the ideal alternative space for Beaton to navigate his social climbing and queerness safely through fancy dress. His country house was his sanctum sanctorum to indulge in the extravagance he might not be comfortable flaunting – or at least be expected to be comfortable flaunting – elsewhere. Allowing for the expression of deviancy through elaborate costume and cross-dressing, Ashcombe established a paradoxical standard of non-conformity that normalised Beaton. It was H. G. Wells’s pinstripe suit, Beaton recounts in Ashcombe, and not, for example, his own leopard-print dressing gown, so loved by Stephen Tennant, that appeared out of place.
Furthermore, to dress up was no longer a question of flaunting monetary wealth but the richesse and authenticity of one’s self-expression – a Wildean principle. In a 1937 Vogue article entitled ‘Suggestions for Fancy Dress’, Beaton writes that ‘To-day it is embarrassing to appear in anything elaborate. To appear effective as the result of a last-minute brain-wave is the greatest achievement… an effective grandeur can only be legitimately achieved with every-day utensils, and materials used for purposes for which they were not meant.’ In recommending costume embellishments made of egg-beaters and steel wool pot-cleaners, Beaton demonstrates the trend for repurposing. Referring to fashion illustrator, designer and Ashcombe guest Christian Bérard’s cutting ‘…eighteenth-century coats out of furnishing tapestry, so that lovers frolicked over the shoulder-blades and cupids blew a fanfare over the hips…’, ‘Suggestions’ connects the domestic to costume through the modern baroque theme of re-contextualisation.
Much can be said for the symbiosis between identity, appearance and surroundings, especially when one decorates with clothing and wears household objects. Paul Schilder, a theoretician and Beaton’s contemporary, explores this slippage in The Image and Appearance of the Human Body: Studies in the Constructive Energies of the Psyche (1935). Particularly resonant with Beaton, Ashcombe and his entertaining are Schilder’s theories on dress and the body. He provides the example of clothing as a means of modifying the body-image’s edges – edges that ebb and flow in response to surrounding space. Dress is a part of the body-image, whether worn, taken off or even envisioned, and channels our ‘narcissistic libido’ in extending the physical and psychic self. One of the appeals of costumed pageantry, Schilder notes, is the ability to enlarge and extend our body-image and sense of self-importance. Through masks, clothing and other decorative extensions, we defy the body’s boundaries. Compounding this is the social aspect of dress and the interconnection between body-images, as we engage with others’ body-images. Dress announces its wearer for the other’s reaction. In Beaton’s case, his fancy dress parties, dressing-up chest and sartorial decrees encouraged a mirroring effect. Dressed as shepherds, queens and painted figures, his guests comprised a corps de ballet that kaleidoscopically amplified, affirmed and approved his identity.
If dress is a close projection of the self, held and worn against the body as a means of identification and metamorphosis, the decorated interior operates on the same principle, only extending further. While Ashcombe did bear the visible impression of the bodies it contained – Beaton asked his guests to trace the outlines of their hands upon a bathroom wall before they left for the first time – this theory of body-image allows for a more atmospheric flow between body and space. As Schilder writes,
around the body there (is) a zone closely interrelated with the body-image which was in some way the extension of the body… From a psychological point of view the surroundings of the body are animated by it….
The material attachment to one’s belongings, nurtured through the patina of use and the passage of time, also certainly contributes to a sense of mutable, portable identity. Indeed, at the end of his memoir, Beaton notes what he terms as house-pride, essentially the satisfaction of possessing and the tendency to delight in what one owns because one owns it. Ashcombe thus came to embody Beaton’s constructed self, at its pinnacle in costume and the mode of entertainment.
With its enticing accounts of dancing village children, paper flowers imported from Paris and costumes including a butterfly-catcher’s dress – its sleeves made of netting filled with real butterflies – the iconic Fête Champêtre all too readily invites an interpretation of theatricality simply as pomp, romp and unexpected delight (1937, Fig.3). While the party lasted from the night of 10 July 1937 to the next morning, preparations began weeks prior, as if for a theatrical production. Beaton recounts how ‘gradually Ashcombe became an industrial colony, with neighbours and villagers coming in to help prepare for the gala. (His) mother sat from early morning till after midnight sewing tarletan ballet skirts to be placed upon the supper tables…’ as another conflation of dress, performance, and decoration. Theatrical aspects included aquarelle scenery; Beaton’s succession of costumes from one act to the next, realised by Russian costumier Madame Karinska; animal masks purchased from behind a theatre in Leicester Square; and Ashcombe’s transformation as a literal theatrical set for the satirical Restoration comedy put on by Beaton and company – ‘…the décor chosen consisted of the brightly lit house…and the flowering lime trees, whitened by the arc lights, acted as wings for our stage.’
Even for the guests, the Fête was not nearly as spontaneous and effortless as it may seem, with their dress – and thus their body-images – directed to be in concert with Beaton’s. Beaton thus exercised control over his identity on three fronts: his dress, his house and his invitees’ appearance. Whether parties came as Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe or the Roman pantheon, ‘…drawings were made of sets of costumes which various groups of friends must wear, for in most instances neighbouring house-parties were to appear as a unit…’ in imperative displays of costumed bodily interplay.
Fashion Time and Haptic Spectacle
Beaton fashionably took himself and Ashcombe out of time. As Baudelaire establishes in ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ (1863), fashion – its fabric, draping, pleating, cut, behavioural influence on the wearer – is inherent to the representation of any particular air du temps. But while the poet’s conception of modernity was of an ever-advancing break from that which came before, French philosopher Henri Bergson proposed an alternative temporal model in 1889 – la durée, marked by the continuous flow between past and present. As fashion and material culture scholar Ulrich Lehmann discusses in Tigersprung (2000) – the title a reference to the fluid temporal configurations of fashion that philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin characterised in 1940 as the ‘tiger’s leap’ between past and present – fashion is more than the material embodiment of the now. Rather like modernity, ‘most significant for fashion its ephemeral, transient, and futile character…’, Lehmann writes, while simultaneously anchoring fashion in the eternal. Its seasonal nature and the modern’s demand for novelty put fashion in a perennial state of impending death, while the promise of renewal and regular quotation of the past promote resurrection and longevity.
Extending his body-image through dress and décor, Beaton defied fixed definition and position. While Bergson proposed that our sense of linear time is heightened by our ‘… tendency to translate temporal experience into spatial terms (space being the place where objects can be discretely numbered and ordered)’, space at Ashcombe was not an ordered timeline but an eclectically decorated house with sprawling grounds, innumerable comings and goings and curated disorder. Ashcombe, and the wider cultural mode of twentieth-century dress-up, suspended time by inspiring nostalgia for the past while capturing a critical modern presence – an effect Beaton distilled in the stylised rabbit suit worn at the Fête Champêtre. With his week-end costume parties, he escaped the confines of standardised time and routine. His dress-up box, purposefully removed from fashion’s wider, seasonal context, with its connotations of the left-behind and mismatched-ness, is a metaphor in itself. From dress up to decoration, collage to photo album, these mixed media were all ways of disrupting the modern temporal break and altering self-awareness.
If fashion is temporal, time and memory are in turn material and literary, evoked by the senses, as with Proust’s madeleine, and preserved in suspended animation through textual media. Futhermore, as Theodore Martin indicates in About Time: Fashion & Duration, reading and viewing occupy a time of their own. Quite simply, to go to Ashcombe was to observe and be observed, and the production and consumption of a mediated Ashcombe implicated the audience in its fabric. While written accounts incorporate the reader’s body at a distance, the photographic image functions on a more direct, corporeal level. Beaton’s article on ‘Scrap Albums’ includes extracts from different socialites’ scrapbooks miniaturised and assembled, as if haphazardly, at jaunty angles within the pages of Vogue. Composed media like the scrapbook and the photographic album build a narrative – though not necessarily a chronology. For Beaton, the album was a means of recording change, deconstructing the timeline and assembling the disparate, thus an inherent tool of fashion. Remarking that ‘…endless pleasure can be had from the distortion or recomposition of pictures…’, he touches upon the photograph’s dual function of preserving for posterity while also satisfying for the present, through its material nature. Like the body-image, the album’s representations and part-whole compositions are also in flux. With this in mind, one need not fixate on veracity so much as consider the self-aware and constructed nature of Beaton’s depictions as valid elements in themselves – epitomised in one of his candid Ashcombe subjects, the photographed photograph viewer.
Captured in the lull of looking at pictures and sunning themselves on the grass, a group of five fix an instant in Ashcombe time. Two figures turned away in conversation appear oblivious to the photographer’s presence. A hand rests on the crease of an open album: a moment of contact and reanimation frozen. Three others look towards the camera. Holding a parasol, a woman reclines on a striped pallet, legs crossed at the ankles. A man rests on her thighs and mimics the tilt of her head, one leg bent and the other extending past the image’s frame. The last guest sits upright, his gaze the most open and aware of the camera.
Strewn outside amongst cushions, parasols and a record player or open upon a lap in front of the hearth in a more posed composition, scrapbooks and photo albums are a common motif in these leisure snapshots that reinforces the photograph’s status as an object and accessory-like quality. These snapshots and their haptic nature recall Patrizia Di Bello’s description of an 1863 photograph of Queen Victoria looking at a photograph of Prince Albert. While Di Bello discusses the nineteenth-century photo album, Beaton’s 1930s albums similarly function on both optical and tactile levels. In Beaton’s meta-image, details of the pictured photographs and those contained in the closed albums are not visually accessible. However, like the Victorian viewer who could understand from the queen’s posture and the shape of the object on her lap that it must be a framed likeness of her late husband, one can easily read the Beaton images and imagine the sensation of flipping through album pages in the sun. Handling the album extends the body-image through touch, while looking at pictures of oneself dynamises the temporal distance between past and current postural models.
The photograph operates on three interlinked levels: the pictorial, the material and the performative. Its narrative, representational qualities are physically manifested in the photo album, whose book form invites touch not only as a means of moving the fixed photographed body once more through space but also of joining the observed and observing bodies. Ashcombe cultivated a mode of camera expectedness and embodied viewing, and given the regularity of the Beaton crowd, these observed and observing bodies were at times certainly the same. The rituals of posing for photographs, looking at photographs, and being photographed looking at photographs feeds a narcissistic awareness of past selves and body-images, making for a photographic durée and an atmosphere steeped in self-imagery. The mise en abyme of the subject – initial photographs collected in albums, distributed amongst guests photographed looking at pictures, resulting in more photographs to be collected and looked at by potential photographic subjects ad infinitum – sets up a performative parallel between looking at photo albums and looking in the mirror.
Through the materiality of his writings and Ashcombe snapshots, Beaton manipulated his image and identity, drawing his home and guests into his self-expression. In turn, related depictions in Beaton’s work open out towards even the removed viewer, making her aware of her own body and position relative to Ashcombe. Gestures and attentiveness of the depicted are reflected by the photographer and the viewer, past and present levelled through gaze and motion. As signified by the portrait with a backwards bunny mask, the self-repeating photo album, and their fractal regards, to look at the work of Cecil Beaton is to look at his backdrop, his subjects, and oneself.
Beaton was at Ashcombe when war was announced. The house and grounds subsequently began a fall into ruin, no longer picturesque by design but tumbledown by consequence. Local builders and merchants could no longer contribute to the maintenance and stocking of the estate. Roofs leaked, ceilings crumbled, and delicate hothouse plants died as the grass and thistles grew unchecked – the Sleeping Beauty once more claimed by nature. Travel between London and Wiltshire became an endeavour, putting an end to the ready flow of flora and fauna between country and city. Beaton took to concealing his harvests in his Vuitton trunks on the way to Waterloo. Fresh garden vegetables encased in designer luggage: what a delectable example of pastoral luxury on its way to oblivion. Emergency rations replaced peach-fed ham, signposts were hastily removed, and air raid sirens split the country air.
Like so, ‘Ashcombe changed from a rambling summer pavilion into a compact dwelling-house in which the serious business of surviving the rigours of a war-time winter were embarked upon. Many of the rooms were now dismantled… The dimensions of the house seemed to become smaller’ – notwithstanding the addition of a radio-location machine and searchlight. In 1944, a German bomber flew over the valley, exploding any remaining conceptions of Ashcombe’s remove and otherworldliness. Beaton records the bomb’s damage in terms of decorative casualties: ‘the ceiling came down in the circus bedroom, and that was the end of the four-poster.’ An Allied officer then arrived to announce his intention to finish the job, planning to blow up Ashcombe and clear the valley to run drills for his men. While this ultimate destruction never came to pass, the officer did claim Ashcombe as a training ground, bringing a wave of new guests who shot at a favourite walnut tree and toppled Marie Antoinette in an entirely different sort of timeless idling.
In 1943, in a shocking reminder that the house he had discovered, revived and incorporated into his very body schema was not actually his, Beaton learned that his lease was not to be renewed. Compounding the macrocosmic war that transformed Ashcombe from pleasure palace to neglected training ground, the time-stamped inevitability of the end symbolised the passing of an era. Its decline was immaterial when compared to the war’s devastation, but the house did still reflect the loss of life, with materiality paradoxically reinforcing absence. To look at photo albums and the outlines of hands traced upon the bathroom walls was to see a list of the dead. Second Lieutenant Rex Whistler, killed coming to his men’s aid in Normandy in 1944, left behind an unfinished portrait of Beaton in a Moroccan suit, his name in Beaton’s diaries and the painting that would eventually become Ashcombe’s dust jacket. With the men and women who once constellated the grounds now flung across battlefields and on the home front, all that remained at this erstwhile Arcadia were impressions. More than the death of a house, Ashcombe’s loss reduced a symphony of body-images to one.
‘Fashion has to mark absolute novelty yet has already died when it appears in the physical world,’ Ulrich Lehmann writes in Tigersprung. The same can be said for Ashcombe and its depiction in Beaton’s memoir as a ‘Story of a Fifteen Year Lease’, time-bound and finished. But this death promises endlessly possible returns… although, devastated by the psychic amputation, Beaton himself would never return to his beloved Ashcombe. Beaton frames his final departure as an expulsion from Eden in symbolic gestures turning back the film of the previous fifteen years. Once, at the other side of a temporal flash, he had wandered from room to room luxuriating in an Ashcombe furnished enough that he could stay over for the first time. Then, ‘…everywhere was a smell of new calico, linen and of sawdust.’ In 1945, again accompanied by Edith Olivier, he passes through the house for the last time inhaling flowers, herbs and sawdust. He walks through the garden ‘cutting the remnants of summer flowers’, ‘saw[ing] off the highest branches of yellow roses’ and ‘slash[ing] at the bushes of rosemary and thyme’ to bring to London – as he once brought flowers from Covent Garden to the country – in the hopes they might still bloom.
Sincerest thanks to Dr. Rebecca Arnold; Emma Nichols and The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s; and Julie Lê and The Irene Lewisohn Costume Reference Library at The Costume Institute, The Metropolitan Museum of Art for their insight, materials and support.
Lacey Minot: An alumna of Barnard College of Columbia University (BA, 2017), graduate of The Courtauld Institute of Art (MA, 2019) and currently a postgraduate at the Ecole du Louvre, Lacey Minot is an American writer living in France with a background in art history and French language and literature. Her interests include interwar culture, fashion theory and exhibition design.
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