Defining glamour: Syrie Maugham and Cecil Beaton

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, September/October 2012 |

The complementary relationship between Syrie Maugham and Cecil Beaton provides a remarkable record of the interplay between fashion, photography, and design in the years between the first and second World Wars. In The Glass of Fashion (1954), Beaton's kaleidoscopic book of musings about the interconnected arts, he wrote: "When we talk about fashion or the minor arts"-in this context substitute the words interior design-"we really talk about the whole art of  living....For those who work within fashion's sphere, the immediate effect is more important than anything else."1 

Beaton, who joined the staff of Vogue in 1928, was an indefatigable chronicler of the ephemeral arts of fashion and interior design. He did not merely document many of the twentieth century's most glamorous women and spaces-he helped define them.

During the course of Beaton's longstanding friendship with Syrie Maugham, he photographed and sketched her several times (see Figs. 2, 11), created decorations and entertainments for her parties, and initiated at least one important commission for her. His 1934 photograph of Syrie (Fig. 4) shows her in the "all-white room" for which she is best remembered. A photograph of the same room by Derek Patmore (Fig. 5) records the subtleties of the room's white, cream, and parchment palette.  Beaton's image, however, is a definitive study in contrasts: Syrie's black suit against the sheen of her white fringed sofa, antiques punctuated by a moderne table and palm torchère designed by Jean-Michel Frank, shadows playing on the smooth white plaster, and playful ironwork she commissioned from architect Oliver Hill. He posed Syrie as the "White Queen," with legs casually crossed, and donning a wide-brimmed hat-a sophisticated, modern woman.

Syrie opened her decorating business in 1922 with almost no training, but with an innovative flair for combining furnishings from a variety of periods and sources. She rapidly joined the ranks of other notable lady-decorators of the time, such as Elsie de Wolfe (1865-1950) and Frances Elkins (1888-1953), at one point owning shops in London, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and Palm Beach. During a thirty-year career she provided furnishings and/or decorating services for such notables as Wallis Simpson and the Duke of Windsor (before their marriage), to Tallulah Bankhead and Lila and Dewitt Wallace. That she was the sometime-wife of popular playwright and novelist W. Somerset Maugham certainly did not hinder her career. Perhaps more important to her success was her ability to attract a number of youthful talents into her artistic coterie. Besides Beaton (just "down" from Cambridge in 1925), her "bright young things" included the great stage designer Oliver Messel, the prolific diversified writer Beverley Nichols, and theatrical boy-wonder of the age, Noël Coward.

The typical Syrie Maugham interior-if such a thing existed-could have served as the setting for a Noël Coward play. Gertrude Lawrence, Coward's friend and stage partner, looked perfectly at home when posed by Beaton in Syrie's London shop around 1934 (Fig. 7). Beaton photographed Lawrence with her dog in one of Syrie's most captivating designs, the heavily-fringed sleigh bed. Framed by the cascading canopy in the all-white setting, it created the ultimate romantic fantasy image of Lawrence, taken at the height of her popularity. Such an image illustrates the ability of both Maugham and Beaton for mixing the old world with the new.

The January 1935 issue of Vogue proclaimed that "the background of every woman is her home: you can wear the loveliest clothes and jewels and if you wear them in a dated outmodish interior-well-what's the good?" Maugham's aesthetic was the perfect foil for Beaton's black-and-white photography. He returned several times with different sitters to Syrie's King's Road residence, staging some of his most glamorous images there. One such view (Fig. 6) depicts his sister Baba standing before a mirror-paneled screen and a glass column with a vase of white lilies. The soft white draping of the dress reflected against the light of the screen captured the sharp and glittering character of the scheme. The overall composition created the ultimate statement of elegance and modernity, and made a Syrie Maugham room the quintessence of chic.

London's craze for pale decor quickly came and went. Despite his role in furthering its frenzy, even Beaton quipped that Mayfair drawing rooms were beginning to look like "albino stage sets."2

It is no coincidence that Syrie's clients were also favorite models of Beaton. One in particular was the much-married American Mona Williams, wife of stockbroker Harrison Williams (and later Countess of Bismarck). For several decades Mona Williams's beauty, fashion, and houses dominated the pages of Vogue and Harper's Bazaar. Beaton described her as "the epitome of all that taste and luxury can bring to flower."3 The same could be said of the interiors Syrie designed for the Williamses in New York and Palm Beach. Syrie furnished the living room of their Mediterranean-style villa in Florida with a mix of traditional English antiques and several moderne pieces by Jean-Michel Frank. In actual fact, Syrie often played with bold color in her designs, as seen in the Williamses' Chinese wallpaper panels richly painted with exotic birds, pagodas, and foliage.  Beaton's oil sketch of the couple with their dogs on their Syrie-designed sofa (Fig. 8) is perhaps the ultimate depiction of 1930s casual chic.

Syrie Maugham carried out her most over-the-top decorating commission at Wilsford Manor for the Honorable Stephen Tennant, an "unabashed aesthete."4 After inheriting the house from his parents in 1929, Tennant seized the opportunity to impose his own taste on his childhood surroundings, transforming them into the perfect setting for cultivating his own androgynous looks (see Fig. 1). Beaton introduced his great friend Tennant to Syrie. The resulting interiors created by this talented trio reflect a lively interchange of creativity, described as "ethereal grandeur tinged with a delicious touch of fantasy."5 Syrie's luxurious draperies, tufted upholstered settees, and lavish satins, fringes, and laces were never displayed with more panache than at Wilsford Manor (Fig. 10).

In spite of Syrie's fame and cachet in the decades between the two World Wars, virtually none of her interiors survive today. Thankfully, we have Beaton's "compositions of inspired prettiness" as aide memoires of these stage sets of another era. As John Richardson noted about Beaton, his images recorded the "grit as well as the fluff of social history."6

Beaton's last photo session of Syrie, taken in 1949, produced an intimate portrait of the woman who caught the Zeitgeist of an era. Only the lens of Cecil Beaton could capture her slightly mischievous twinkle (Fig. 3).

1 Cecil Beaton, The Glass of Fashion (Doubleday, Garden City, N.Y., 1954), pp. 13-16.  2 Ibid., p. 247.  3 Ibid., p. 223.  4 Pauline C. Metcalf, Syrie Maugham: Staging Glamorous Interiors (Acanthus Press, NewYork, 2010), p. 155.  5 Stephen Calloway and Stephen Jones, Style Traditions: Recreating Period  Interiors (Rizzoli, New York, 1990), p. 280.  6 John Richardson, Sacred Monsters, Sacred Masters (Random House, New York, 2001), p. 172.

 

 

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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