Beauty, decadence and a damned good party: Cecil Beaton at Salisbury Museum

By Richard Moss | 28 May 2014

An immersive exhibition at Salisbury Museum explores the decadent parties and soirees of Cecil Beaton at his Wiltshire homes between 1930 and 1980

a book with a montage of black and white images on the front
Frontispiece montage for Cecil Beaton’s Scrapbook, 1937, Ashcombe© Private Collection
The not so private world of Cecil Beaton - photographer to the Royals, painter, designer of interiors, stage and costume and secret diarist - seems to have been as opulent as his professional career was varied.

If we are to believe his candid diaries, it was a world of decadent parties and languid weekend soirees full of bright young things who caroused at his Wiltshire homes against a backdrop of sumptuous interiors and fabulous gardens.

The first of these private pleasure houses was Ashcombe, which he rented for £50 a year between 1930-45. It was followed by Reddish, which Beaton purchased in 1945 and lived in until his death in 1980.

By all accounts both were splendid residences, and the stream of celebrities and society people who came and went were photographed by Beaton or captured in his notoriously frank scrapbooks and diaries.

And it is these extravagant worlds that can be glimpsed at Salisbury Museum who, with the help of the vast Cecil Beaton Archive at Sotheby’s, are teasing them back to life.

A tantalising glimpse into the photographer’s more hidden moments and the celebrity in-crowd of friends and acquaintances he lavishly entertained, the exhibition brings together 183 unique photographs (including 35 vintage prints) exhibited with some of his artworks and personal possessions within recreations of the interiors.

But it's the cast of players that grabs the attention; bohemian aristocrats, socialites and some of the biggest stars of the stage, screen, fashion and art world form a procession of decadence that stretched across five decades from 1930-1980.

Famous faces include Truman Capote, Leslie Caron, David Hockney, Bianca Jagger and Ivor Novello interspersed here with private snaps of his great loves - the Hollywood icon Greta Garbo, with whom he had an affair, and millionaire art collector Peter Watson, with whom (we are told) he didn’t.

But as well as the society faces the exhibition includes images of the photographer’s inspired garden designs at Reddish and his theatrically-styled home interiors at Ashcombe, which he created so he could ‘live in scenery’, inspired by his visit to Hollywood in 1929.

Work in progress shots show the making of Beaton’s fantastical ‘Circus Bedroom’ in 1932 with freshly painted murals of a circus clown, a girl on a merry-go-round horse and a jolly fat lady.

The bedroom was apparently created “on a rainy weekend in 1932” by a typically decadent gang of dazzling society types that included artists Rex Whistler, ‘Jack’ von Bismarck, Oliver Messel, Lord Berners, Edith Olivier, Jorg von Reppert Bismarck and of course Beaton himself.

Whistler also designed Beaton’s theatrical four-poster ‘carousel’ bed with gilded unicorns, stripey circus-top canopy and barley twist bedposts.

Beaton is pictured with Watson amidst this baroque creation. And visitors can experience it for themselves courtesy of a full-scale recreation reconstructed for the very first time since it was broken up in 1945. A fascinating glance into a decadent disappeared world.

  • Cecil Beaton at Home - Ashcombe and Reddish is at Salisbury and Wiltshire Museum until Friday September 19, 2014. Normal admission applies.
More pictures

a black and white photo of a man in white shirt and shorts leaning casually whilts holding a large brimmed straw hat in the entrance way to a grand house
Cecil Beaton on the front steps of Reddish House, Broad Chalke, June 1947, Reddish© Cecil Beaton Archive, Sotheby’s
a painting of a Georgian country house seen from the lawns in front
Ashcombe House, by Rex Whistler, 1930s, Ashcombe © Private Collection
a colour 1950s photo of a glamorous model in country house interior
Dorian Leigh photographed for ‘Modess... because’ campaign, Reddish House, Broad Chalke, 1950s, Reddish© Johnson & Johnson
a photo of two men one of whom is wearing a smoking jacket as he drapes his arm languidly across a baroque balustrade
1. Sir Cecil Beaton (left) seated on the ‘Circus Bed’ at Ashcombe House with Peter Watson, the love of his life.© Cecil Beaton Studio Archive, Sotheby’s
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