A Curious Friendship (originally published by Hunger, March 2015)
One morning in the autumn of 1927 the photographer Cecil Beaton arranged his friends for a photograph along a rustic bridge that spanned the River Avon at Wilsford in Wiltshire. Dressed as fashionable eighteenth-century aristocrats masquerading as shepherds, their faces painted and their hair lacquered, they posed with haughty disdain. Amongst them the composer William Walton, soon to write his first symphony; golden-haired Stephen Tennant, the mercurial aristocrat then hailed as ‘the brightest of the Bright Young Things’ by the press and Rex Whistler, the twenty-two-year-old artist whose mural at the Tate Gallery – to be unveiled later that month – meant that he was the talk of the town. Beaton’s innovative portraits of society ladies and film stars were beginning to make him famous. He was a taste-maker, a trailblazer, his camera ever ready to record the antics of his equally famous friends. The photographs that he took that November morning, and this one on the bridge in particular, are perhaps the most iconic images of England’s high society jeunesse dorée of the 1920s. The Bright Young Things as they were known, emerged in the years after the end of the Great War, their scandalous antics shocked society while the press fanned the flames and it was all to be captured in the novels of Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford. Party-going, gender-bending, cocktail-drinking sybarites, they were determined to rebel against the warmongering sins of their Edwardian fathers and dance in fancy dress until dawn.
It was to Beaton’s photographs that I turned when I began researching the life of Rex Whistler. A middle-class boy from Eltham in south-east London, he had been swept into that rarefied world by his close friendship with fellow art student Stephen Tennant, but Whistler always remained on the fringes of the Bright Young People. He was diffident, mysterious; a romantic figure whose art was more inspired by the eighteenth-century than the avant garde and whose charmed life was overshadowed by his early death in the Second World War. He is often likened to Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh’s lament for a lost world of country house splendour.
The joy of writing biography is in searching for the traces of a life, seeking out the scraps of evidence and connecting them all to recreate the narrative of that life. As I researched Whistler, he remained elusive, but someone else came sharply into view. She sprang from the footnotes of biographies, from the edge of other lives, a woman, older than Whistler and his bright young friends, but often at the centre of photographs, holding court with a cigarette in her hand. Edith Olivier had already lived a fascinating life. A spinster and the daughter of a country rector, clever and opinionated, she had studied at Oxford, developed the Women’s Land Army and won an MBE. She was a woman of wonderful contradictions. When her beloved sister died in the winter of 1924 she had believed her life, at fifty-one, was over too. But in the New Year she was invited by her young friend Stephen Tennant to join him and Rex Whistler at a villa on the Italian Riviera. She took up the offer and in meeting Whistler, then nineteen, both her life and his were changed irrevocably.
Their friendship, despite an age difference of over thirty years, was to be the most important of their lives. They helped to reinvent each other. Edith educated Whistler in the lore of the aristocratic world that was to become his milieu. She shared his romantic imagination, becoming his patron and loving confidante. Her cottage, in a wooded corner of the Wilton Estate, became the Arcadian centre, not only of Whistler’s life, but also of Stephen Tennant’s, the poet Siegfried Sassoon’s, William Walton’s and Cecil Beaton’s, to whom she became ‘all the muses’. She was wise, inspiring and sympathetic. She was a catalyst to their creativity and was open-minded about her friends’ homosexuality at a time when it was illegal. In turn they encouraged Edith to crop her hair, wear lipstick and shorter dresses. They breathed new life into her. Soon she was being photographed by Beaton for Vogue, wearing Charles James couture and drinking cocktails with the Ballets Russes. She became a successful novelist and was later the first woman mayor of Wilton.
And so this fascinating woman moved from the fringes to the centre of the story. The narrative of her life, and her friendship with Whistler, came tumbling out of the many volumes of her diary and the boxes of letters between Edith and her friends. And in her scrapbooks, amongst the invitations to first nights, dinner menus and handwritten poems written by famous poets, were pasted original photographs by Cecil Beaton of Edith and the others. She had not been at Wilsford (Stephen Tennant’s family home) that morning when her friends were photographed by Beaton on the bridge. She did however, join them for a ‘hectic lovely dinner party’ that evening. And they had all donned fancy dress, Edith in a fringed cloak and gold-striped trousers, the oldest, but to my mind, undoubtedly the boldest, of the Bright Young Things.