Thursday, 19 April 2012

Guest Article: 'Stephen Tennant – Sartorial Young Thing' by Imogen Reed


In times past, I've toyed with the idea of guest writers to diversify this column's content. I'm glad that I didn't often persist, as it impelled me to research the different areas I was interested, but not knowledgeable in. Consequently, my connoisseur's guide to pornography will see print any day now; the internet should really know the difference

Imogen Reed, on the other hand, is more the persistent type, having gotten in touch during my last AWOL period to craft the sort of article she believes you Paraders would like. Her portfolio revealed a variety of subject matter, as well as a tendency to guest on the blogs of others (why she does not have her own is one of those unanswerable ponderables, I suspect); her biography revealed aspects I've sometimes wanted for myself, such as full-time writing and a period spent living in New York. And so, this is her highly unedited article on renowned Bright Young Thing Stephen Tennant, a fellow for whom I've long felt ambivalence, despite his MP-friendly sensibilities; something - many things - about his lifestyle always struck me as being surfeited with little but vapidities; a lightning rod for the self-justifications of much less interesting, would-be Des Esseiteses (reportedly, one of his great ambitions was to rival the beauty of his sister Claire). On the other hand, I do appreciate that for far too long, Tennant suffered from the unique difficulties and megrims that are sadly forced on one by mental illness

But who knows? Imogen might make a believer out of me yet. His biography is now in my Amazon list; I've always liked its title

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Stephen James Napier Tennant (1906-1987). A constant and nefarious work in progress, he was born in a time of great social and cultural upheaval.  He lived through some of the most daring and outspoken decades in the 20th century and indeed created many of his own stories and headlines by being famous just for being, well, “Stephen Tennant”. Apocryphally, he is said to have spent most of his later life in bed at the family home, Wilsford Manor. 

Auspicious Beginnings



The son of Lord Glenconner and his wife, Pamela (formerly Wyndham) he was the youngest of five children.  The most notable and upsetting event of his childhood was the death of his elder brother, Edward (affectionately known as “Bim”) who was killed during the First World War.  At the tender age of four, he is alleged to have gone into the family garden in the company of his nanny and stopped dead in his tracks when he came face to face with the beauty of the "blossom of a pansy." This moment was said to be a defining one in terms of his life path.  Always dedicated to the arts, fashion and literary matters (though ultimately producing little of his own to add to any of these canons) he was devastatingly attracted to colour, form and beauty in all shapes.  He was a fine artist and sketcher and had one unfinished and unpublished novel to his name “Lascar”.

He was, and remained for much of his life a sickly human being.  An early case of Tuberculosis in his teens rendered him quite weak and after various trips abroad for sea air, rest and recuperation his health failed to improve.  However, this didn’t stop him from exploring nightlife, from visiting theatres and generally living it up – all of course, done with his customary verve.   


Bright Young Thing

Sartorial elegance, louche living and artistic altruism in one effete, beautiful package. 

During the 1920s, in his heyday Tennant – along with his friends Ceil Beaton, Rex Whistler, Siegfried Sassoon and The Mitford Sisters became society’s hottest property.  For many years he and Sassoon were engaged in a relationship which had a lasting impact on the both of them after it ended.  Today, they would be front page of all the glossy magazines.  Back then they were known as “The Bright Young Things” and Stephen was at the very forefront of it.  Along with such other society luminaries as The Right Hon. Elizabeth Ponsonby and Brenda Dean Paul these people attended parties and did little else, living on allowances from their parents and never having to worry about credit cards or relying on balance transfers. But they did it fabulously, darling…

Alabaster in Human Form


Tennant was the most beautiful, picture perfect alabaster sculpture ever formed.  His portraits, mostly taken by his friend – the aforementioned Cecil Beaton show a delicate frame; Marcel waved blonde hair – sometimes dusted with actual gold to make it more ethereal and photogenic, his features were almost supine.  Rarely smiling, often looking into middle distance, his perfect rosebud pout and piercing eyes were apparently enhanced by a little application of Vaseline before photos were taken.  The idea is often put forth that the greatest work of art of Stephen’s life was himself.  This notion is supported by his infinite interest in clothes and make up and jewellery.  In 1927, after a very famous “Bright Young Things” event, The Daily Express were quoted as saying: “Stephen Tennant arrived in an Electric Brougham, wearing a football jersey and earrings”.  He cared little what people thought of how he dressed.

Vanity Fair 

A naturally vain man however, he is alleged to have uttered: "My tongue is already flickering like an adder, lest one iota of foreground is denied Me," upon learning he was about to have his picture taken with a group of his friends. 

A photo-shoot for his birthday in 1927 reveals an otherworldly creature; he wears a dark pinstripe suit, striped shirt, silk tie and over the whole outfit threw a black leather mackintosh with chinchilla fur collar that he had fashioned himself.  When the prints of the shoot arrived, in his own shy and retiring style he commented: ''I'm nearly crazy at their beauty'' 


1927/1928

“London's Bright Young People have broken out again” wrote the Daily Express. All the guests to the party had to come as someone well known. Tallulah Bankhead came as Jean Borotra the famous tennis player of the era.  Stephen went as the queen of Romania. A group photograph of Stephen, Tallulah and other members of the party was featured in The Tatler with Stephen's costume easily the most beautiful. Evelyn Waugh was notable by his attendance. Indeed, this party was the inspiration for his novel “Decline and Fall” and it’s subsequent follow up “Vile Bodies”.  Characterisations of Stephen carried on, even appearing in the form of Sebastian Flyte in “Brideshead Revisited”. 

By 1928, people were beginning to tire of the antics of Stephen and his illustrious band of friends.  The biggest causal factor was “The Depression”.  Many people throughout the country were suffering.  Unemployment was at a high, workers were striking and the cavorting and game playing of a group of seemingly over-privileged twenty-somethings was seen as frightfully self indulgent. 


Stephen’s society swansong and indeed the end of the Bright Young Things came that very year with a final flourish at a “Bath and Bottle” Party arranged at St George’s Swimming Baths on Buckingham Palace Road.  The invited parties drank and danced to the strains of an orchestra.  For the occasion, Stephen wore a pink vest and long blue trousers…

Inauspicious Endings

Stephen outlived nearly all of his contemporaries.  Elizabeth Ponsonby died young (1940), possibly as a cause of her alcohol and drug addictions acquired during her years of partying.  Brenda Dean Paul eventually died in 1959 of a heroin overdose in her flat – for years she had survived on a steady diet of salted peanuts and Brandy cocktails.  He also outlived the two most cherished people in his life, Cecil Beaton (1980) and Siegfried Sassoon (1967). 


Living mostly as a recluse (though a rather decorative one) he retreated back to his childhood home, Wilsford, until his death at the age of 80.  Desperate to recreate the fond memories of holidays he had had in the Mediterranean he imported twenty two tons of silver sand and had it liberally spread on the lawns to evoke his French dreams.  There were Chinese fan palms planted, and tropical birds and lizards let loose to cavort in the grounds. 

He had many tales to tell of his years as a Bright Young Thing that were only finally realised by the author Philip Hoare in his wonderful biography of Tennant’s life “Serious Pleasures”. A louche life less lived. 


3 comments:

smartygirl said...

gorgeous. i am embarrassed to admit i hadn't heard of him before; definitely intend to read the book!

ADG said...

I assume that perhaps another brother became the next Lord Glenconnor?

Barima said...

Yes; Christopher Grey Tennant, his older brother and second son of their father

Best,

BON

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