Entries in culture (14)


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)


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


Killer Diller

When I was a young teen I went through a short period of enjoying reading the adventures of The Phantom. Those comics were probably my last foray into graphic novels, but apart from the adventuring itself, the vintage forties illustrations were particularly appealing.

Click on the images for larger versionsOn the weekend I picked up a reproduction comic of The Phantom Versus “the Spy Ring” in an op shop for $1, and had fun reading it late yesterday evening. While this story came to a satisfactory conclusion, I had forgotten that these were serial! Damn. Now I’ll always wonder if the Phantom ever ran the spy chief Baron to ground.

I was glad however that his fiancé Diana featured prominently in this story, for I enjoyed her 1940s fashions, especially this beach pyjamas ensemble complete with headscarf and high heels that she wore on the dastardly Baron Danton’s yacht.

I have always hankered for a pair of beach pyjamas, but feel stymied not only by their rarity and expense, but the lamentable fact that any vintage jumpsuit I have tried on has proven to be too short in the body for me. You can see it a bit better in this detailed scan below.

In 40s parlance, aren’t they just killer diller*?

* That would be amazing.


A Beautiful Soul

Only very recently did I discover the ethereal work of Scottish photographer Lady Clementina Hawarden (1822–1865), via an Instagram page called VictorianDarlings.

For a moment they took my breath away, for there was something achingly poignant and tender about them: the soft natural light that gently bathed these young women and diffused into grand interiors, this glimpse of a woman’s exploration of her subject – her daughters, mostly – in the pioneering days of photography.

Produced by albumen prints from wet-collodian negatives, the most popular method in the mid 19th century, Hawarden’s photographs are like paintings, sumptuous and delicate at the same time.

Hawarden called her work ‘studies’, and she worked in natural light, unlike many of her contemporaries, using mirrors to distribute the light pouring into her interiors through huge windows or French doors. In largely empty rooms, she used props, mirrors, draped fabric and curtains, and clothing made up of both contemporary and costume dress to create exquisite portraits, and tableaux (a popular theme of the era) of her daughters.

Windows, an obvious and convenient source of light, become a framing device, and offer a glimpse of the balcony beyond; further off, the city becomes a blurred background.

Most of what is known about Hawarden must be gleaned from her work; some art critics have made suppositions about her themes, for instance, exploring sexuality and adolescence, subjects that bothered the Victorians; but that can only be guesswork, and dubious at that when viewed through a contemporary lens (no pun intended). She left no diaries, nor was there any accompanying archival material when the photographs were generously donated to the V&A Museum by her granddaughter in 1939. They were cut or torn from family albums – there is no explanation as to why, but my guess is stubborn glue! (Sometimes the simplest answer is the right one.)

I think Hawarden found a creative outlet that thrilled her – she produced her entire oeuvre (over 800 photographs) by painstaking method in only approximately seven years – and in an era when this art form was so new, above all she wanted to make beautiful pictures. Is that not enough without casting about for bogeymen? To me, the photographs speak for themselves – and of her beautiful soul.

Read more about Lady Clementina Hawarden and see more of her work at V&A Museum.

Images from V&A Museum, and Pinterest.


Bonne Fête

Rue Montorgueil, Paris, Festival of June 30, 1878, painted by Claude Monet in 1878“The Fête de la Fédération on 14 July 1790 was a celebration of the unity of the French nation during the French Revolution. The aim of this celebration, one year after the Storming of the Bastille, was to symbolise peace.

“On 30 June 1878, a feast was officially arranged in Paris to honour the French Republic (the event was commemorated in a painting by Claude Monet).” [Wikipedia]

And here is Monet’s painting, full of joy and light – you can practically feel the sunlight and the wind on your face emanating from exhilarating painting, with all those madly waving flags. And it is easy to imagine how the air must have been alive with excitement and celebration. What an extraordinary impression Monet captured of such a momentous day.

Happy Bastille Day to my French readership!