Millennium Gallery set to showcase Cecil Beaton portraits

Millennium Gallery set to showcase Cecil Beaton portraits

15 April 2021

Cecil Beaton’s glittering portraits from a golden age will be brought together at the Sheffield’s Millennium Gallery this spring in a major new exhibition direct from the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Cecil Beaton’s Bright Young Things explores the extravagant world of the glamorous and stylish ‘Bright Young Things’ of the twenties and thirties through the lens of the renowned British photographer.

Presenting a dazzling leading cast of society figures, artists, writers and partygoers, each seen through the prism of Beaton’s portraits, the exhibition will feature 150 works, many of which are seldom exhibited. The images on display offer a joyous, playful spectacle of costumed theatricality and unbridled creativity.

The exhibition in Sheffield, which comes after the pandemic sadly brought the original run in London to a close after just one week, is a rare opportunity to see these remarkable portraits together on such a scale.

Beaton’s celebrated sitters, to many of whom he would become close, would help refine his  photographic style throughout these early years – actors and anglophiles Tallulah Bankhead and Anna May Wong, writer Daphne du Maurier, glamorous socialites Edwina Mountbatten and Diana Guinness (née Mitford), artist and friend Stephen Tennant, set and costume designer Oliver Messel, composer William Walton, modernist poets Iris Tree and Nancy Cunard, among many others. Brought to vivid life, each portrait has a remarkable story to tell.

While some of the faces on display may be less well known, their stories are no less fascinating – those of style icons Paula Gellibrand, the Marquesa de Casa Maury and Baba, Princesse de Faucigny-Lucinge, the eccentric composer and aesthete Lord Berners, modernist poet Brian Howard, who was in part the inspiration for Brideshead Revisited’s Anthony Blanche, ballet dancer Tilly Losch and Dolly Wilde, Oscar’s equally flamboyant niece.

Also featured are portraits of an older generation, one which gave Beaton’s career early impetus: outspoken poet and critic Edith Sitwell, the famously witty social figure Lady Diana Cooper, artist and Irish patriot Hazel, Lady Lavery, and the extraordinary, bejewelled Lady Alexander, whose husband produced Oscar Wilde’s comedies and one of Beaton’s early patrons.

Cecil Beaton’s own life and relationship with the ‘Bright Young Things’ is woven throughout the exhibition, not least in self-portraits and those by his contemporaries. Socially ambitious, he was a much-photographed figure, a celebrity in his own right. Beaton’s transformation from middle-class suburban schoolboy to glittering society figure and the unrivalled star of Vogue, revealed a social mobility unthinkable before the Great War. Throughout the twenties and thirties his photographs place his friends and heroes under perceptive, colourful and sympathetic scrutiny.

The exhibition features an extensive body of work from the Cecil Beaton Studio Archive, alongside loans from several national and international collections. Highlights include vintage prints of Beaton’s earliest subjects, his glamorous sisters Nancy and Baba; the Vogue portrait of his friend George Rylands as ‘The Duchess of Malfi’, published when he was a student, that set him on the road to fame.

There are glimpses from high-spirited revels at country house weekends, including a rare vintage print of the leading lights dressed as eighteenth-century shepherds and shepherdesses on the bridge at Wilsford Manor, regarded now as the quintessential depiction of the Bright Young Things. In town, parties, charity balls and pageants were enlivened by an almost maniacal zeal for the theatrical and the extravagant in costume and attitude. 

In addition to Beaton’s own portraits, the exhibition also features paintings by friends and artists known to Beaton, including Rex Whistler, Henry Lamb, Ambrose McEvoy and Christopher Wood; portraits of Beaton by Paul Tanqueray, Dorothy Wilding, and Curtis Moffat; as well as books magazines, photograph albums, and other ephemera. The exhibition is curated by Robin Muir, Curator of the Vogue 100: A Century of Style exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in 2016 and a Contributing Editor to Vogue (to which Beaton himself contributed for over 50 years).

Dr Nicholas Cullinan, Director, National Portrait Gallery, London said: “We are delighted to offer visitors another chance to see this major exhibition at Sheffield’s Millennium Gallery after its original run at the National Portrait Gallery was cut short by the pandemic. The exhibition brings together for the first time so many of Beaton’s dazzling photographs, high on art and artifice, which beautifully capture the original and creative world of the Bright Young Things.”

Robin Muir, Curator of Cecil Beaton’s Bright Young Things said: “The exhibition brings to life a deliriously eccentric, glamorous and creative era of British cultural life, combining High Society and the avant-garde, artists and writers, socialites and partygoers, all set against the rhythms of the Jazz Age.”

Alison Morton, Head of Exhibitions at Museums Sheffield said: “We’re delighted to open this fantastic exhibition as we welcome visitors back to the Millennium Gallery this spring. It’s a wonderful window into the fascinating world of the Bright Young Things and a hugely creative period in Beaton’s work. Fundamentally though, it’s also a celebration of the joy, inspiration and delight we find in those people we meet and find a connection with, and as such, couldn’t be more timely.” 

Cecil Beaton’s Bright Young Things opens at the Millennium Gallery from 20 May and continues until Wednesday 4 July 2021 – entry is free.

To avoid disappointment, visitors are encouraged to pre-book their free visit to the gallery. Pre-booking and reduced numbers are part of a range comprehensive safety measure in place, which also include enhanced cleaning, hand sanitiser stations and changes to the building’s air handling system to continuously bring in fresh air. Visitors can plan and book their visit online at: museums-sheffield.org.uk/welcome-back