Being And Doing

Weds 15th: to the Last Tuesday Society shop for a talk by Philip Hoare on Decadence. Specifically Decadence as personified by Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward and Stephen Tennant. Maud Allan gets a look-in too, as part of the ‘Cult Of Wilde’ in the early twentieth century, when Wilde’s name and work were synonymous with deviancy. Public arbiters of moral decency used him as a warning, while those into anything naughty used him as a beacon or a code.

Mr Hoare points out how Wilde’s appearance changed from being fairly deviant itself – long hair and stockings – to short hair and conventional suits when he was actually getting up to the deviant activities. The other change was that he had become known for making art as much as being a work of art. Coward had his outré appearance too: the dressing gown and cigarette holder. But he’d become famous as a writer first. The image was a way of branding his work; a trademark, sealing it and enhancing it. Stephen Tennant, however, was someone who was famous in the 1920s for looking striking but failed to do much he could point to. When he got older and lost his looks, he tried to become a novelist but failed to even finish his debut attempt, Lascar. Mr Hoare says Tennant rewrote it so many times, it’s impossible to put together a version for publication.

The talk is sold out, and I wonder how many are here for Tennant per se. Certainly Hoare is the main Tennant expert, being the author of the only biography, Serious Pleasures. It’s been out of print for the best part of twenty years, so people who’ve read it are now a kind of cult themselves: enthusiasts of lesser known camp figures. John Waters and David Walliams are fans of the book.

In his slideshow, Mr H shows an image that’s not in the biography: a still from a 1928 home movie. Tennant is dressed as a blind beggar boy, languishing by a river in rags and white face make-up. Somewhere between Narcissus and Ophelia, he looks shockingly beautiful yet otherworldly, like a character from a film by Jean Cocteau, Kenneth Anger, or Derek Jarman. What’s particularly unexpected is that the camera is held by Oswald Mosley. If only he’d stuck to making films.

Earlier today: to the NPG to catch the Ida Kar exhibition. Kar photographed Stephen Tennant several times, one of the 1960s pictures making it into the Hoare book. None are on display at the NPG, which is a shame as it’s subtitled “Bohemian Photographer”. If anyone was good at just being bohemian more than anything else, it was Tennant.

Still, I enjoy looking at the umpteen proper writers and artists she snapped, from Stanley Spencer sitting under his umbrella (indoors) to a teenage Sylvia Sims, looking like the sort of girls that go to the LTS balls. Vintage yet curiously 21st century.

There’s also a portrait of Laura Del Rivo in the early 60s, who I don’t know much about. Alert eyes, unkempt bob hairdo, wearing what looks like a smock and smoking a cigarette. Actually, she looks a little like Patti Smith, except ten years earlier and British. She wrote ‘The Furnished Room’, a novel set in the bedsits of Bohemian London, so I really should get hold of it.

Just as Beaton’s image of Tennant in the black mackintosh inspired Philip Hoare to find out more, I come away from this portrait keen to read Ms Del Rivo’s book. Like all art, and like concerts, a good portrait should leave the onlooker wanting more.


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