The 1962 portraits of Dame Edith Sitwell by Sir Cecil Beaton

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Tuesday 24 August 2010
Ron Brownson

Edith Sitwell (1887-1964) first met Cecil Beaton (1904-1980) on 7 December 1926 at the home of Allannah Hooper, a mutual friend who was a maven of London’s ‘high society.’ It was a fateful meeting because the photographs that Beaton made ofSitwell later in 1926, then in 1927 and 1931, brought them both much fame. Beatoncreated jazz-age portraits of Edith that visually alluded to the 19th century's Pre-Raphaelite dreamy femininity as best seen in Dante Gabriel Rossetti's own amazing drawings and paintings.

The portraits that he took in 1926 and 1927 were all prefabricated set-ups prepared in dimly lit interiors. During December 1926, the first group of portraits occurred inBeaton’s London studio, while during the following year he travelled to the Sitwell’s residence in northeast Derbyshire. Anthony Powell considered the family's ancestral seat as being positively "sinister". It was certainly a melancholy house thought to be inhabited with as many ghosts as the residents. To visitors like D.H. Lawrence,Renishaw Hall seemed like a desert island populated by the family's renowned past.

For his 1927 portraits, Beaton swathed Edith, as well as her fey brothers younger brothers Osbert (1892-1969) and Sacheverell (1897-1988), in slimy oil cloths. He then further draped her like a supine muse, with either an 18th century brocaded damask dress or in a huge Lurex silver silk cape, while at the same time lying recumbent on the black and white marble tiled floor with Christmas lilies strewn over her torso.

This campy tableau was tres exotique for English photography of the period and was almost Orientalist in its attitude. Yet, it was not Eastern in any way. Instead it comes across like an updated version of English Victorian medievalism. The theatrical pose and attire made Sitwell appear like a spooky and ethereal refugee from some early painting by Rossetti. The people who saw these portraits in magazines did not recognise Beaton's homage, they simply thought he was being dreadfully modern and wonderfully shocking.

Sitwell appeared both dreamlike and comatose. With the whitest of white tones of pan-cake powder, and both arms articulated in the manner of a votive female oracle. This attitudinising totally suited Edith’s being, which she always toned up in order to slaughter audiences with her spoken performance attuned by her aristocratic hauteur.

Naturally, I have always adored Sitwell’s appearance while also knowing that the English now regard her work as belonging among the more self-serious of their 20thcentury poets. Her odes appear somewhat stultifying and indulgent and can come across as intentional self-caricature. Oddly, their heady languor makes them seem even more contemporary in spirit, nowadays.

Edith's spoken voice was like a cross between the dulcet clarity of Her Royal Highness The Queen Mary and the ultra-mannish and masculine tone of the Duchess of Windsor. Listen to Sitwell’s brilliant tonal control in the performance of Sir William Walton’s Façade. It is as if she is giving orders to an audience that dares not miss one single word:

“I am not eccentric. It is just that I am more alive than most people are. I am an unpopular electric eel set in a pond of goldfish”. (Edith Sitwell, quoted in Life magazine, 4 January 1963)

I reproduce here the 1962 portraits that Cecil Beaton made of the aging EdithSitwell. They are among the finest portraits of any English artist, especially someone who was as heroically individual as she was. Terrifying to behold on stage, as well as in person, Edith sometimes came across to friends who visited her at home as a mild and timid person. Dame Edith was a superb contradiction ofoutré confidence and stage panache.

Wearing her black ostrich feather turban faced with diaphanous organza, she welcomed Beaton into her apartment at Greenhill in Hampstead. She had commissioned portraits from him to mark her 75th birthday. She knew that they would be published internationally and would create an instant sensation. They did and you can see why. She is performing her eccentric fame for the camera and is much more beautiful at 75 than she was at 25.

Writing afterwards to Beaton, she commented: “It is such a comfort not to appear as a cross between a turkey that has been insufficiently fattened up for Christmas and an escapee from Broadmoor.” (Quoted in Hugo VickersEdith Sitwell, 1985, page 457).

From my perspective, these are three superb portraits of a person who is both a leading artist and a unique personality, who could play like a child in front ofBeaton's camera while being utterly confident that the results would shock the public. These are portraits to return to and be fascinated by.

Did you ever see aquamarine rings ever worn with such aplomb? Will you ever see jewellery presented with such a willful affectation? Dame Edith Sitwell’s mode of wearing rings is without equal. It makes Dame Elizabeth Taylor look like someone who simply supports a diamond’s extensive number of carats, admittedly to wonderful effect. It takes extreme skill to wear four huge rings and make them become greater personal emblems than any medal could ever be.
Dame Edith lived with the Queenly attitude of her own unconventional style. Just lifting her fingers to point could have been equated with a physical workout. The gems are such huge stones.

On her luggage label she had printed a yellow label that read:

Her rings were never kept in her luggage.