12 of 56 portraits of Edith Sitwell
by Cecil Beaton
bromide print on white card mount, 1927
9 1/2 in. x 7 5/8 in. (242 mm x 193 mm)
Accepted in lieu of tax by H.M. Government and allocated to the Gallery, 1991
Artistback to top
- Cecil Beaton (1904-1980), Photographer, designer and writer. Artist associated with 1107 portraits, Sitter associated with 358 portraits.
Linked publicationsback to top
- Clerk, Honor, The Sitwells, 1994 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 14 October - 22 January 1995), p. 114 Read entry
In this group of photographs Edith wears the splendid brocade dress, a single ring on her left hand and a cord round her neck with a pendant (or just possibly an eyeglass). Osbert wears a lighter coloured suit, where visible, than in the previous group and his 'Cubist' tie, or the leopard-effect dressing gown. Sacheverell appears in a magnificent heavily patterned silk gown. Apart from these indications of one particular sitting, the photographs mark a development in Beaton's ideas, with the Sitwells consciously acting out roles devised for them, especially in the recumbent photographs and the 'apotheosis'.
In the most famous photograph of the series Edith is shown lying in state with attendant wooden cherubim on the black and white linoleum tiles that Beaton had acquired for just such an event. The present print is a splendid vintage exhibition print from Beaton's collection that is an unusual variant of the much-reproduced version with Edith lying diagonally across the composition. Here she is totally shrouded in a glittering fabric that sets off the spray of lilies to far greater effect than the brocade dress of the better-known shot. The photograph was the subject of an angry scene between Beaton and Edith's mother, Lady Ida, the following year when they met at Georgia's bedside in the Paris clinic where Georgia was being treated. 'What do you mean by taking a photograph of my daughter in a coffin?' demanded Lady Ida in an exchange that nevertheless ended amicably with Beaton committing the unforgivable solecism of calling her 'Lady Sitwell'.1
The altarpiece-like apotheosis of Edith with Osbert and Sacheverell kneeling as 'donors' was clearly planned very carefully and involved placing a folding screen on the console table in the green and gold drawing room at Sussex Gardens. Beaton's drawing of the same composition includes one of Osbert's Italian shell 'grotto' chairs, two pieces of contemporary sculpture and a Victorian glass-domed shell arrangement from Carlyle Square, none of which appear in the photograph.
1 Sarah Bradford, Sacheverell Sitwell, Splendours and Miseries, 1993, pp 177-8.