The Felix Gardener

by Pasquale G. Casullo

“He was at his best in his garden at Reddish.” – Hugo Vickers

TORONTO – Picture it: an aged yet sprightly man, prancing with graceful springy steps through a vast, verdant country garden. He’s got a camera in hand. He’s snapping away at a model, Penelope Tree. He’s as jolly as a boy on Christmas Day. When the two trip into one another, in a laughing fit, the provincial photography shoot concludes.

The man is Sir Cecil Beaton in his element, in his habitat, the lush green ground of Reddish House – located in the village of Broad Chalke, in Wiltshire, England – where he lived for over thirty years. “I love the sort of freedom the country gives you,” Sir Cecil once said, letting-slip his joie-de-vivre secret.

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Sir Cecil had been, over his seventy-six years, an author, a designer, a dandy, a painter, and a photographer – as described, nearly in full, by television interviewer John Freeman, back in 1961. Sir Cecil had many more jobs to add to his curriculum vitæ, as his biographer, Hugo Vickers, notes: a traveller, lecturer, caricaturist, diarist, failed playwright, host, social historian – but none appealed as much as the theatre. “The visual really guides my life more than anything,” Sir Cecil said. The man of many trades wouldn’t, couldn’t pick just one outlet for his great talent, capturing as well as expressing beauty. “I’m afraid that has been my trouble for a very long time. I think I took a shot in every direction,” he said, in that 1961 interview, explaining why he was more than a one-trick pony. “All I know is that I don’t get stale. By the time I’m through a particular job, and found another, I approach it with complete freshness.” But in those long “job” lists, a significant descriptor that encapsulates Sir Cecil is missing: country gardener. Yes, country gardener, something one doesn’t quickly associate with our neat, tidy, finicky, indoors-steeped, paper-white, well-dressed man-about-towns. Maybe it is because Sir Cecil was a tad shy – in just this one instance in his life – talking about this great love. (Greta Garbo was once another great love, however he always gabbed about that, especially in his diaries.) But what is it, exactly, that brought such a man into such a life: digging and dirt and blooming blooms? Sir Cecil always loved loved loved flowers, but fetching some from a shop, and growing them and plucking them from a garden, are two entirely different activities.

cecil 3 and jean shrimpton

Cecil and Jean Shrimpton

Diana Vreeland, the famed fashion editor, who was a life-long friend of Sir Cecil, and commissioned his photography for her magazines, understood the man very well. “Cecil knows who he is: he is an Englishman, before anything else, that is all he cares about, being an Englishman,” she said, in the 1971 documentary “Beaton By Bailey.” And being an Englishman is all he did care about a lot. Specifically, being an aristocratic Englishman, but an aristocratic Englishman Sir Cecil was not. “Cecil has a great deal of grand seigneur about him. A social vanity that is amusing and unique,” added Truman Capote.

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Born on January 14, 1904, into a prosperous upper-middle-class family – father for a while was a flourishing timber merchant – he had a great thorn on his side: a middle-class man was certainly the furthest thing from what the young man wished to be. So, while growing-up, self-styling, self-fashioning, and self-creating himself into a great artist, Sir Cecil found a way through to the other side, the nearly impossible to jump into English upper-upper-class side: photography. It was the magic key, gaining him access into the beau monde beyond reach – even though it was looked down on as a profession, Sir Cecil found a way to use it to get to the top. “Cecil is a character who has completely made himself. Because, from the very beginning, he always wanted a very good life, and he realised, there is only one very good life, and that is the life you know you want and you make it yourself,” Ms. Vreeland said, describing Sir Cecil’s voyage.

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And in younger-years, there was a big dash of fandango’ing, too. The writer Tom Wolfe wrote about an incident: “Being a daredevil as well as a dreamer, he did exactly that. While in his teens, he began planting items about his mother and his two sisters in The Times of London and The Daily Telegraph. It was easy. The occasional box of cigars to the society editor did the trick. The magazines were a harder ticket. They required pictures. So Beaton called up the leading London society photographer of the 1920s, Hugh Cecil, and said he was from Vogue and was looking for a portrait of Mrs. E. W. H. Beaton. The photographer invited Mrs. Beaton over for a sitting, and in no time she was in all the magazines – since they were impressed with anyone who was in the Hugh Cecil gallery of socialites. To the day she died, Mrs. E. W. H. Beaton the London Hostess (as the magazine Bystander captioned her picture) never quite understood what had happened. It was as if a fairy godmother had tapped her and swept her up into the Bystander and the Tatler and their slick-paper galaxy of titles and balls.”

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However, despite being successful in making the life he knew he wanted – the career, the entrée into society, the status, the fabulousness – Sir Cecil was still missing an ingredient. There was one more bush to leap over, the living full-time in London middle-class sort of life. “I think it is so sad seeing all the commuters arriving at this time in London,” Sir Cecil said, in “Beaton By Bailey,” while sitting in a train-car, on a week-day morning, leaving Paddington Station for the country. “It is just the sort of life I’d loathe having. Clocking in and out and hardly enjoying their own homes. I mean, they get back in the evening whacked. I thank God I can lead the sort of life I want.” And leap the bush Sir Cecil did, back in 1930, by finding for himself an aristocratic marker, a manor in the English countryside – but never-mind that it wasn’t inherited, passed down with peerage through generations and generations.

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The first such home was remote, romantic Ashcombe House, in Cranborne Chase – near Salisbury, England – which he rented from R. W. Borley of Shaftesbury, who bought the house post-First World War. “I was almost numbed by my first encounter with the house. It was as if I was touched on the head with a magic wand,” he wrote in a diary entry. Ashcombe was a fine, fixer-upper with a good history, inherited by Anne Wyndham, who married the Hon. James Everard Arundell, the third son of the Sixth Baron Arundell of Wardour. It was splendid for Sir Cecil’s procured pedigree, too. It was the place Sir Cecil longed for most, giving him a sort of lordly-life, far from middle-class. There, he made a dream a reality. The house was always stuffed with fun, friends (especially the Bright Young Things), parties, imagination, inspiration. “In that time life took on a sudden colour and warmth,” Sir Cecil diarized. However, the time at Ashcombe was transient; Mr. Borley of Shaftesbury terminated the lease, in 1945. A great loss, as Ashcombe was beloved and, more important, had good distinction.

Sir Cecil, being Sir Cecil, needed a new country home for his general well-being. Two years passed, 1947 arrived, and Sir Cecil found and purchased Reddish House. A perfect, permanent home, situated directly on a quaint street, with a five-acre garden behind and in front of it. (But, it is a cruel coincidence that the house was built in the early eighteenth-century for a Mr. Jeremiah Cray, a clother; Sir Cecil didn’t exactly elude middle-class beginnings, in the end.) And in the new grand-but-little estate, gardening – alongside Mr. Smallpiece, Reddish’s gardener-in-charge – was increasingly occupying Sir Cecil’s time, holding as much interest as either a visit to Buckingham Palace or Vogue studios, an excursion or work obligation. “When you found the real Cecil it was delightful,” said Ray Gurton, his former butler, in the 2018 documentary “Love, Cecil.” “The real Cecil would come out when he was home at Reddish, in the garden, with his old garden clothes on – he was happy. There was no grandeur, he really was himself.”

Andrew Ginger, a curator of a 2014 exhibition within an exhibition, “Cecil Beaton At Home – Town And Country,” said, “The Wiltshire garden was essential to Sir Cecil’s existence.” For one, the garden was something visual Sir Cecil had complete control over – and he liked having complete control over things. For two, the garden provided beauty in Sir Cecil’s day-to-day life. Said Mr. Ginger: “The rooms were filled with enormous displays of bloom and blossom […] even the garden was expected to perform with the same energy levels which the photographer-designer-writer applied to all aspects of life.” For three: “I don’t know whether I’m being any use at all, but it is marvellous therapy. I’m very happy when mucking around the garden like this,” Sir Cecil said, in “Beaton By Bailey,” right after setting aflame dead, dry stacks of garden debris.

Sir Cecil always was a week-ender, rarely spending longer than a Friday to a Tuesday in the country, until he suffered a stroke, in 1974. From then on he lived full-time on his cherished land, the world as he always wished it to be. A personal Arcadia. Sir Cecil died peacefully, in 1980, four days after turning 76 years-old.

From “The Unexpurgated Beaton Diaries as He Wrote Them, 1970–1980”:

WEEDING 24 JUNE, 1972

Luckily the rainfall has made weeding easy, and if one is in a happy frame of mind, weeding is a very pleasant occupation. If one has anything unpleasant on one’s mind, one is apt to dwell on it. If one is actively worried, then it is not the sort of thing to do.

MIDSUMMER DAY

Three rotten headaches in a row. I begin to get worried… I woke up yesterday morning with another headache, not too bad but enough to make me feel uncomfortable. I could not read or write. So I took myself off to the garden to do last-minute tidying up before the opening. Smallpiece slaving put me to shame.

24 MAY, 1973

How lucky I am to have this beautiful house. It is a day of sun, blue sky, long shadows on the lawn, daisies, buds everywhere, and my garden is at its best, the beginning of summer.

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