If the name Cecil Beaton means anything to you, it might well be from a Claire Foy-era episode of ‘The Crown’. ‘Dear Cecil’, as they lovingly refer to him, is a favourite for his frou-frou portraits of the young monarch, his sugar plum conservatism contrasting with the sexy modernity of Lord Snowdon, husband to Princess Margaret and a very different type of society portraitist.
This exhibition, however, presents a different side to the photographer and costume designer. Concentrating on the roaring twenties – and Beaton’s contribution to the mythologising of that era – the show captures his younger and wilder side.
The endless black-and-white parade of bright young things is filled with Beaton and his pals in kitsch Medieval theatre costumes, weird pastoral outfits (like Gainsborough on acid) and lots of bejewelled, draping fabrics.
It’s at its best when its subjects are at their most bonkers. The neverending party scenes and recurrent use of silver mirrored surfaces make them oddly similar to the images that came out of Warhol’s Factory. These are pics filled with androgyny, gender-fluidity and homoerotic beauty, and at points it feels like a genuinely subversive cultural movement.
But the whole show never really transcends being a lot of pictures of a lot of extremely posh people (ladies, vicountesses, princesses, etc.) with nothing more pressing to do than pour another glass. And as the twenties turn into the thirties, the self-imposed vapidity of the ‘elite’ class becomes increasingly less palatable.
Arguably the two greatest books about this social set, Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Vile Bodies’ and ‘Brideshead Revisited’, mercilessly satirise or crushingly critique it. Without the equivalent side-eye, Beaton's gin fizz starts to taste a little flat.