and Wilton House pay tribute to the life and work of the photographer, writer and Oscar-winning designer Cecil Beaton (1904-1980) with a new exhibition of photographs from Sothebys Cecil Beaton Studio Archive, designed and curated by Jasper Conran. Capturing the spirit of country house parties and costume balls, the exhibition showcases previously unseen images from one of Britains most celebrated photographers, giving a fascinating glimpse into his life and a vivid portrait of a charmed age.
Staged at Wilton House in Wiltshire where Beaton was entertained by his friends the Pembroke family at grand parties and pageants for over 50 years, the exhibition runs between 3rd May 14th September 2014.
Described as a worldly Peter Pan who never aged1, Cecil Beaton the acclaimed photographer for Vogue and Vanity Fair - was at the forefront of the fashion for costume and pageantry which swept through British society in the 1920s. Immortalised in the Noël Coward song Ive been to a marvellous party, Dear Cecil arrived wearing armour/Some shells and a black feather boa
, Beaton was renowned for his flair for fancy dress and costumery, later winning Oscars, Academy and Tony awards for his designs. He invited friends from all over the world to legendary parties at his Wiltshire home Ashcombe, where guests arrived in the knowledge that they were to exchange reality for a complete escape into the realms of fantasy.2
As fancy dress became a popular feature of country house parties, and costume balls a highlight of the social calendar, Beaton seamlessly integrated his high-society personal life with his professional artistic quest to experiment with photography and fashion. Using the settings of Britains grandest country houses as the perfect backdrop, Beaton persuaded his friends to sit for him in their exotic costumes, often designed by him, for these most unconventional of photographs.
This fascinating collection of photographs are being displayed in a new exhibition space, especially renovated for the event at Wilton House. Situated just a few miles from Beatons country houses Ashcombe and Reddish, Wilton was the location for costume balls and theatrical events enjoyed and photographed by Beaton for over 50 years. Despite being pushed into a river at the first Ball he attended there in 1927, Beaton later became great friends with the Earls of Pembroke. Over time he photographed and chronicled the lives of three generations of the family in the surroundings of the house which he described as perhaps the most wonderful piece in all Wiltshires heritage of domestic architecture
at every time of year, in all weathers, unfailing in its beauty.3 On 14th January 1980, just three days before his death, Beaton celebrated his 76th birthday with a lunch party hosted by the family.
Lady Pembroke, the Trustees and I are delighted that we are able to hold this exhibition in association with Sothebys Cecil Beaton Studio Archive and we are fortunate to have Jasper Conran to design and curate it. There is a strong family connection with Cecil Beaton and although I was too young to remember him, my mother and older sisters certainly have very fond memories of him here at Wilton.
The images that have been chosen are fascinating both as social history and also for their technical brilliance. Beaton was a genius when it came to studio photography, but he also excelled at capturing spontaneous shots of pure joy.
I hope that the exhibition gives as much pleasure and inspiration to visitors as it has to us. - William Pembroke
1 Hugo Vickers, Cecil Beaton: The Authorised Biography, Introduction, p. xxiii
2 Cecil Beaton, Ashcombe: The Story of a Fifteen-year Lease, p. 33
3 Cecil Beaton, Ashcombe: The Story of a Fifteen-year Lease, p. 35