The Exuberance of Cecil Beaton

First edition of The Blessing, by Nancy Mitford with cover art by Cecil BeatonRecently I started reading Nancy Mitford’s book The Blessing, which, a few chapters in, is proving very entertaining. I first spotted this first edition book on a shelf in an op shop (thrift store), my eye caught by the author’s name as well as the colourful though tattered spine.

I had heard of Nancy Mitford (1904–1973), but I didn’t know much about her life. One of the famous Mitford sisters, she was a novelist, biographer and journalist. The book The Blessing, is considered one of her best, and was dedicated to her very good friend Evelyn Waugh. He told Mitford he found the book, “admirable, deliciously funny, consistent and complete, by far the best of your writings”.

My eye was caught by the illustration; the cover artwork of this first printing in 1951 is by Cecil Beaton and through the rearing horse, and tilting angles evokes a madcap adventure with the heroine’s young child (the ‘blessing’ of the title) at its centre.

Portrait of Coco ChanelCecil Beaton (1904–1980) was a prolifically creative person: ‘a fashion, portrait and war photographer, diarist, painter, interior designer and an Oscar-winning stage and costume designer for films and the theatre’. [Wikipedia] I have always admired Beaton’s dedication to detail in his drawings in particular: what patience he had in faithfully depicting the intricacies of interior décor in his portraits of the wealthy! The wallpaper patterns especially impress me, and it is no wonder after all, for he was also a textile designer, and his fabric designs were used by Balenciaga, Dior and Lanvin. (Read more here.)

Here is a small collection of Beaton’s exuberant illustrations that show a joyful sense of colour and playful riot of pattern and texture.

Images from Pinterest

Portrait of the Duchess of WindsorBeaton's accessories for Vogue magazineVogue cover, June 1935Vogue cover, July 1935Front cover of one of his personal scrapbooks, full of society photographsBack cover of Cecil Beaton's scrapbookWraparound book cover (click image for larger version)


Simply Colour

Gaspé – Pink Sky, 1940Can you believe I had never heard of the painter Milton Avery before today? Thanks to Pinterest I discovered his beautiful paintings. The large stretches of almost flat colour of the first one I saw, Gaspé – Pink Sky (1940) immediately put me in mind of Rothko, except that it was representational. What I love about it besides the muted tertiary hues is the simplicity of the stylised shapes that form the landscape, and indeed all his compositions.

Seated Lady, 1953Conversation, 1956Avery (1885–1965) is considered a seminal American painter but seemed to have suffered from first being ahead of his times (too abstract early in his career), and when the times caught up and Abstract Expressionism bypassed him, he was dismissed as being too representational.

Like Rothko, he was concerned with the relation of colour as opposed to creating the illusion of depth, and was influenced early on by French Fauvism and German Expressionism. He was likened to an American Matisse (another of my favourite artists), and the art critic Hilton Kramer said of him:

“He was, without question, our greatest colorist … Among his European contemporaries, only Matisse—to whose art he owed much, of course—produced a greater achievement in this respect.” [Wikipedia]

Three Cows on a Hillside, 1945Fall in Vermont, 1935Horse in a Landscape, 1941Vermont Hills, 1936Working in New York City in the 1930s–40s he became a part of the artistic community and in fact friends with Mark Rothko, who paid him a high compliment:

“What was Avery’s repertoire? His living room, Central Park, his wife Sally, his daughter March, the beaches and mountains where they summered; cows, fish heads, the flight of birds; his friends and whatever world strayed through his studio: a domestic, unheroic cast. But from these there have been fashioned great canvases, that far from the casual and transitory implications of the subjects, have always a gripping lyricism, and often achieve the permanence and monumentality of Egypt.” [Wikipedia]

Read about him in more detail here.

Yellow Sky, 1958Interlude, 1960Images from Wikiart and Pinterest.


It’s A New Season

Happy September from this elegant pussikins and his Edwardian human! They are very laidback indeed for the first official day of spring (and drably dressed), while I am dancing with joy. I guess it makes sense in the context this would have been painted for a magazine in the northern hemisphere, where it is the first day of autumn of course – hence the pumpkin orange.

Whether the nights are beginning to draw in cosily, or thrilling you with scented balminess, I hope you have a wonderful month, dear readers.


Spring is Coming Tomorrow!

Image from The Graphics FairyYes, tomorrow is indeed the first day of spring, although our city will not know it, with the temperature plummeting down to 13°C, and rain forecast.

This vintage illustration comes from an old advertising trading card for laundry starch. It’s particularly apt today as I have just accepted delivery of two packets of Retro Clean!

Tomorrow may not be a good laundry day at all, but here’s to the advent to spring – and spring cleaning!


Alice’s Adventures on Film

Tatiana's adventures inside a sandwich boardOne of my favourite childhood books was Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. So I was very much looking forward to seeing the Wonderland exhibition at the Australian Centre of the Moving Image (ACMI), which explores the many adventures of Carroll’s famous story on film.

The disorienting mirrored Hallway of DoorsLooking through the two-way mirror into the Hallway of DoorsBeginning with the Hallway of Doors (enter by the smallest door, no matter how old you are), is a series of fantastical rooms, with names such as ‘The Pool of Tears’, ‘Looking Glass House’ and ‘A Mad Tea Party’. On show is charming footage from the late nineteenth century to the multitude of iterations produced in the century since, as well as a plethora of other material such as Charles Dodgson’s original concept drawings, magic lantern projections, vintage posters, animation cels, puppets, props and costumes.

This was always my favourite page in the book when I was very little, so I was thrilled to see Charles Dodgson's original drawing, c1862–64The exhibition is immersive from the get go. On entrance, each attendee is given an ‘enchanted Lost Map of Wonderland’ that unlocks additional surprises with the aid of digital scanners in different rooms of the exhibition – if you could get past the kids hovering over the scanners.

Looking Glass House; the exhibition's curation is thoughtful and thorough, and the design is clever and entertaining for young and old Queen's costumes in Looking Glass HouseThere are also several video installations, and my favourite was at the end, a montage of footage from film, television and advertising showcasing how the story of Alice has entered and utterly saturated popular culture to the present day. I could not help picturing how astonished and gratified Dodgson would be if he could see how far in time and space his story has reached.

If you are in Melbourne, the exhibition is running at ACMI every day of the week until 7 October, and is a must-see.

ClocksInside the video installation of A Mad Hatter's Tea PartyInside the video installation of A Mad Hatter's Tea Party

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