Beaton’s Paradise Lost

In every life there are the rites of passage that define and shape it, from the joys of falling in love … to  the vicissitudes of moving house. These two events are united in the case of Cecil Beaton, aesthete extra-ordinaire: A man whose style and vision created My Fair Lady, a Sotheby’s archive of dreamy photographs. A man who danced with the Bright Young Things, romanced Greta Garbo and hung out with Warhol.  Cecil wrote a poignant book on this subject, and when I think of him, I always think of  this, his first love and perfect home: Ashcombe.

He wrote of his first view “it was as if I had been touched over the head by a magic wand…love at first sight”.

 He was 26, and Ashcombe was a derelict house which he transformed, but could not own. When the house was finally wrenched from him, he had turned 40 and lived through the second world war, Aschcombe represented and contained a time in life when all seemed possible and infinite.  At 26, the 7 year lease had seemed eternity. He charts his journey of love and loss, in a gem of a book: Ashcombe, the story of  a 15 year lease. Really, such a dry title fails to convey the passion inside.

Cover of Cecil’s Book painted by Rex Whistler, the title is  in a decorative cartouche with asymmetrical accents – encapsulating the Rococo mood he created there.

The book was a labour of love and testament to his time there, Cecil designed…

decorative chapter headings

and included  sketches, the one above for the sitting room( interior photo below).

 I re-read  Aschombe, because “Cecil Beaton: the New York Years” was published by Rizzoli, reminding me of his achievements and my Cecil-love. To the un-Cecil initiated, imagine Mario Testino also being a winning set and costume designer, a fabulous decorator, fabric designer, illustrator, writer, diarist, commercial innovator and you start to appreciate the Cecil-legend.  Cecil loved New York and New York still loves Cecil,  the City museum is having a major exhibition currently – hence the book.

But he also suits Aschcombe, and it this version of Cecil which charms me. Ashcombe perfectly express his life long aesthetic: a lavishly eccentric English style. He is besotted by his home: which is his castle, his heart, his core. I love the pictures his visiting friends made seeking to encapsulate this figuratively and emotionally.

The sketches above are by visiting friends Dali and Berard.

Cecil’s first visit to Ashcombe is typical of him, he is staying with Edith Oliver at  Wilton ( the Wiltshire house of Inigo Jones and ‘double cube’ fame) with Rex Whistler, and they have dressed Edith up:

“dozens of necklaces, a long, tight fitting leopard skin dressing gown which I owned and a  huge picture hat trimmed with full-blown roses ravished from her garden beds…lips enlarged, cheeks with magenta rouge,  eyelashes  covered in molten wax”- unfortunately there is no picture! otherwise it would be HERE.

Anyway, chat flows and there is talk of a sleeping beauty house with a grotto, A GROTTO… The hunt is on and ‘it had to be mine’ are his word on discovery. (Although it is Edith who does the deal, unfazed in her attire,  to a flummoxed games keeper.)  Once the keys were his,  it was total overhaul, no English Heritage here, and I love the finishing touch, the entrance gained a broken pediment with welcoming pineapple, designed by Rex, which gave the front façade a new elegance creating a proper house from the former dairy.


It is the interiors which became legendary, Ashcombe became his creative canvas and personal Eden, the book offers brilliant visuals of the interiors he created.  Cecil was inspired by his travels to Bavaria and Austria: he thought “only in terms of Rococo”,  declaring, “my house would be furnished in pale clear colours and lead the spirit of gaiety and masquerade”. He waved a magic wand, as he did in his professional life: his photography is famous for his glamorous settings and Aschombe became the ultimate expression of this. His own silver foil backdrops, Syrie Maugham’s  fashionable ‘white room’ and Londoner Baroness D’Erlanger’s ‘Ali Baba’s cave’, a shop which sported junk re-purposed: drums as side tables, large sea shells etc. all of this found its way into Ashcombe’s fantasia.

The studio all in ‘Syrie Maugham’ white with drums and bird cages in situ

Cecil reminisces on his interiors spree, acquiring items wherever work and fancy took him: the backstreets of Venice to Bavaria and France , “I acquired life-size cupids,masses of silver and gilt candlesticks, silver bird-cages, glass witch balls, engraved mirrors, shell pictures and crumbling Italian consoles… But I was still without a chest of drawers “. Love that youthful decorating!

My favourite story is his studio curtains:”I decided … In order not to outlay a large sum on curtains, to use hessian sacking sewn with large pearl buttons like those on a coster’s coat… But I had not reckoned on the number of buttons necessary, 300,000 … The effect was dazzling… But had cost me more than ancient Venoese velvet”.

The older Cecil relates how he has come to realise that buying crumbling artefacts is no long term investment.  But his youthful folly creates a home of rococo charm, stirred a with dash of 1930’s sur-realism, a potent cocktail.

Jean Cocteau ‘arms’ lead the way to the studio

 The master bedroom is the most infamous room, an extraordinary re-imagining of a circus and the big top, from the performers to baroque emblems, barley sugar poles and a bed commissioned from the circus-merry-go-round makers.  This is the only area where an interior fragment survives: a mural of a lady on a circus-horse.

Cecil in the circus themed master bedroom

While cherubs lead the way in the sitting room

a vista through the sitting room out to the ‘valleys embrace’

Ashcombe, Cecil’s reign there and the rococo idyll he brought into existence has taken on mythical status, and not just to me, Madonna purchased it and her choices there celebrate its provenance.  Tim Walker’s photoshoot  in US Vogue mimics celebrated Beaton antics  and recreated the drawing room’s interior in homage to Cecil’s scheme.

It is clear from Cecil’s memoirs that Ashcombe was a glorious place and  he wrote ‘that he should never again find a house that I could love with such blind devotion’. His love of Ashcombe and delight in it was such he described himself as cast out of Eden, a paradise lost.  Ashcombe was similarly lost –  unfortunately the farming family who clawed it back, despised Cecil’s interiors and fame, wallowing in its wrack and ruin. I always feel that beneath Ashcombe’s decorative gilding and mythical glamour lies a touchstone, to all those who have loved or love a home, that resonates through time.

All black and white images are from Cecil Beaton’s book ‘Ashcombe: The story of a fifteen year lease’. Colour images of Ashcombe exterior and the sitting room ‘recreated’, Tim Walker for US Vogue August 2005

8 thoughts on “Beaton’s Paradise Lost

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