There are celebrated myths, and celebrity mythmakers: Cecil Beaton was both. Artist, photographer and socialite, chronicler of a generation, he excelled in creating celebrity in an age that was not yet exhausted by the word.
Beaton, of course, had both talent and depth to his brilliance, although part of his magic derived from an ability to be in the right place at the right time – he was always, effortlessly, at the centre of everything. And in a stellar career, perhaps his greatest achievement of all was the restoration of beautiful, isolated Ashcombe, the small red-brick house on the edge of the Wiltshire chalk downland, in the west of England, that he rented in 1930, aged just 26. For the next 15 years the house formed the dreamlike epicentre of his charmed existence.
What entered his life as a broken-down farmhouse left it as a vision of Arcadian England, complete with sugar-toned, gilded interiors, fantastical wall decorations by Rex Whistler and Lord Berners, fluttering white doves in the courtyard, and a history and provenance second to none. Ashcombe entered that mythic realm that only few houses achieve, spoken or dreamt about more than they are visited, the place of legend and scene of legendary events. It is a fame that grew, of course, as interest in Beaton intensified in the later decades of the last century, and accelerated when Ashcombe was purchased, in 2001, by Madonna and Guy Ritchie. The house is now the subject of a major exhibition at the Salisbury Museum, running alongside a new display of photographs from the Beaton Archive at nearby Wilton House, curated by Jasper Conran – whose extraordinary aesthetic and energy makes him the Beaton of our generation. Ashcombe’s star is set to rise even further.
It was in the spring of 1930 that Beaton discovered the farmhouse, set remotely above a valley, on a visit to his friend Edith Olivier with the artist Rex Whistler. Olivier lived at Daye House, a beautiful, quiet house on the Wilton Estate. She had heard of an abandoned house out in the downs with a grotto.
Beaton describes the moment of discovery in his superb, breathlessly written Ashcombe: The Story of a Fifteen Year Lease: “With intense excitement we got out of the motor. Below, stretching to the distant sea, lay an extraordinary sylvan carpet. There were hills wooded with a variety of beautiful trees. Among a cluster of ilex trees a coil of smoke arose. We walked down the rough track of white chalk and flint stones which was bordered with nettles and yellow tansy. After we had descended for nearly half a mile we came to an arcade of low hanging beech trees, and an archway of pink brick faced with stone. None of us uttered a word as we came under the vaulted ceiling and stood before a small compact house of lilac-coloured brick. We inhaled sensuously the strange, haunting and rather haunted atmosphere of the place . . . ”
Beaton was transfixed. He set about finding who owned the broken-down house: a Mr Borley, who retained the land for the shooting. Part of the house was lived in by the gamekeeper; the rest was derelict and used for rearing pheasant. Borley could not understand quite why anyone would want to take it on, but Beaton was determined. “Some people may grow to love their homes,” he wrote, “my reaction was instantaneous. It was love at first sight, and from the moment that I stood under the archway, I knew that this place was destined to be mine.”
He triumphed. Terms were agreed and Edith Olivier’s builders from Daye House were brought over from Wilton. Beaton engaged his friend, the Austrian architect Michael Rosenauer, to advise on the alterations; Rex Whistler designed a new stone doorcase and work commenced in the autumn of that year. Rooms were opened up and a new route from the front door to the garden created; the stables were to be transformed into the studio, decorated in fashionable shades of white. Surrounding fields were turned into formal gardens with apple trees and statuary. Progress through the winter was grindingly slow and Beaton, ever impatient, took himself abroad.
Eventually the moment arrived when he could move in. Beaton vividly describes the chaotic, muddy scene that greeted him and Whistler on his first day at the house; but the door opened to reveal a candy-coloured interior smelling sweetly of rush matting and fresh sawdust. He filled his new home with an extraordinary assemblage of both objects and friends, which in equal measure must have seemed like creatures from another planet to the closed-in world of this small corner of Wiltshire.
Beaton’s circle included the most famous young artists, aristocrats, writers and aesthetes of the 1930s; the “bright young things” of which he was possibly the brightest flame of all. Doubtless, those who flew too close could find themselves burnt by his sometimes scorching, sometimes cruel wit. No wonder, perhaps, that reticent Whistler preferred to stay enveloped in the quiet charm of Olivier’s Daye House, surrounded by the civilised classical beauty of the Earl of Pembroke’s Palladian house and parkland. But Beaton’s albums are testament to his extraordinary generosity and intense appeal. Tiny black-and-white photographs show lawns on golden afternoons; Edith and Rex, Lady Colefax, Augustus John, Lady Ottoline Morrell, Marchesa Casati, Oliver Messel, the Mitfords, Salvador Dali or Christian Berard.
The apogee of a decade of parties was the night, in the coronation summer, 1937, when Beaton and Michael Duff hosted a fête champêtre of unimaginable proportion: “For weeks beforehand, preparations were put in motion. Enormous paper cotillion flowers to decorate house and garden . . . were flown from Paris . . . Drawings were made of sets of costumes which various groups of friends must wear, for in most instances neighbouring house-parties must appear as a unit. The party from Wilton would come as characters from Greek mythology; Crichel would provide oriental peasants; from Rockbourne would come a picnic-party of late Victorians. The waiters, of course, must be disguised; so at the suggestion of Salvador Dali, we telephoned to Vienna to a shop which made extraordinary bird and animal masks.”
One senses the hand of Beaton, like that, later, of his friend Truman Capote, exercising a near-tyrannical control – but all in the interests of creating pleasurable perfection. The great and the scandalous flocked to Ashcombe. Beaton’s peripatetic life took him around the world but from his travels he would return to the delights of the place he longed for most of all.
Behind the closing chapters of The Story of a Fifteen Year Lease lurks the ominous menace of war. While life in this part of Wiltshire remained relatively unscathed, Beaton’s work as an official war photographer gave him, if not quite a role as a leading actor, then at least a front-row seat. As optimistically as it had opened, the decade of the 1930s closed in chaos and destruction.
Then, in 1943, Beaton learned that Mr Borley’s son had decided to take back Ashcombe: “A piece of news as if I had heard my own death knell,” Beaton wrote. The lease was to be terminated in two years, and what he had hoped might be permanent was revealed to be as transient as the carefree atmosphere pre-1939. Beaton’s departure from Ashcombe is wrapped into the sadness and melancholy of war that took so many of his young friends – including Whistler, on his first day of combat in the Normandy campaign.
Beaton left in the autumn of 1945 and for the next three decades, until his death in 1980, lived five miles to the west, at Reddish House in Broad Chalke, where he created a new atmosphere of startling and unexpected beauty. But he mourned Ashcombe forever, and with a sense of loss that he never overcame.
‘Cecil Beaton at Home – Ashcombe and Reddish’, Salisbury Museum, until September 19; ‘Cecil Beaton at Wilton’, Wilton House, until September 14; ‘Ashcombe: The Story of a Fifteen Year Lease’ has been republished by The Dovecote Press, £8