Monday, October 28, 2013

Beaton and the Baroness

Yesterday, during a stormy afternoon, I came across an illustrated 1939 autobiography called 'My Royal Past', by Baroness Von Bülop:

It didn't look terribly inspiring, but then I noticed that the Baroness had collaborated with Cecil Beaton and my curiosity was aroused. Somehow I couldn't imagine him willingly writing a hagiography of a minor European royal, so what had prompted him to act as her amanuensis?

More to the point, who on earth was Baroness Von Bülop?

Born in an obscure German principality, Baroness Von Bülop seems to have been well-connected and appears in many group portraits of the leading aristocrats of fin de siècle Europe. If there was a coronation, royal wedding or christening, she was there:

But although Von Bülop was a great socialite, she was perhaps happiest when alone with her easel:

"Sir Edward Landseer was keenly interested in one of my early aquarelles and deemed it full of promise."

In 'My Royal Past', the Baroness comes across as a woman of strong passions, capable of acts of great generosity, but also quick to anger:

"Yesterday I had a particularly friendly word for the stable-boy. Later, he was emboldened enough to chase one of the housemaids. I had him dismissed on the spot."

On a less enlightened note, it has to be said that Von Bülop was no looker:

At this point, I began to smell a rat and as I flicked through the pages of photographs of duchesses and dowager princesses, my doubts grew:




The next photograph, featuring a character called 'Duckie', confirmed my suspicions:


Needless to say, the women are actually men - Beaton's friends in drag.

'My Royal Past' is a shameless parody of the self-serving autobiographies of aristocrats and minor royals that littered the bookshelves of 1930s Britain. Once I began to read the text, I saw the joke:

"I reflected, not without venom, that my aunt did not seem to trouble about me or my welfare when I was less useful to her. Our confidential intercourse was practically over, and I noticed to my annoyance that she had struck up a close friendship with the Baroness Cissi Baptist-Aggisberg, a lady whom I am told came from the Island of Lesbos."

As for Baroness Von Bülop, she was actually a Chilean playboy and opium addict called Antonio de Gandarillas, known to his friends as 'Tony':

Beaton's book appears to have been largely forgotten, which is a pity because it is a very amusing satire. I have enjoyed reading about Von Bülop's childhood in Pottersfelden Castle and her English governess, Alice Blood-ffoulkes, who taught the young Baroness the poems of Sir John Suckling.

I found myself nodding in agreement when the Baroness decried the 'dread age of jazz, which I so abominate':

"In (my day) it was considered a disgrace if the son of a prominent family took to lucrative employment. Nowadays, everybody works, even the least deep thinkers. People hobnob with parvenues and live in restaurants and hotels. So much has been lost with the passing of the carriage."

Sitting in her 'den' at Klosterhoven, the Baroness laments the passing of time:

Revolution has claimed both her loved ones and wealth, but at least the Baroness still has her fine collection of photographs and sketches:


Sadly, in a chapter entitled 'I Eat Humble Pie', the Baroness falls on hard times and endures the stigma of penury. However, a chance encounter in a 'night-club' with a young Englishman called Cecil Beaton changes her fortunes. He agrees to help Von Bülop write her memoirs and also finds a room in a convent, after hearing of her exploits in a sailors' hostel:

"The Mother Superior here is very kind and the restictions are not great. I am allowed out during the day and as long as I return by six o'clock no one asks questions. There are few things that cannot be fitted in before sundown. Paris is still its same naughty old self, and so am I."

I wonder if the young Barry Humphries ever read this book. There are more than a few shades of Dame Edna in Beaton's creation.

The appeal of Beaton's books is that he manages to combine his gifts as a photographer, writer and artist to produce something that is remarkably quirky and subversive for its time. Some of his cut and paste photographs, with people added to group portraits or superimposed on unlikely backgrounds, rival today's Photoshop efforts.

Cecil Beaton seems so inextricably linked with the age of the 'bright young things', it is easy to forget that he had a successful postwar career and was a mentor to photographers like David Bailey.

He also lived long enough to witness the Sex Pistols use his portrait of the Queen for the cover of their 'Never Mind the Bollocks' album, employing the same cut and paste technique as the young Beaton. I wonder what he thought.

One other piece of Beaton trivia is that he was bullied at school by Evelyn Waugh:

"The tears on his long lashes used to provoke the sadism of youth and my cronies and I tormented him…Our persecution went no further than sticking pins into him and we were soundly beaten for doing so."

Over 40 years later, in what must have been an odd encounter, Beaton took Waugh's portrait:


I can't say I'm surprised to read that Waugh Minor bullied the young Cecil Beaton. He was like that. But I'd like to think that if he ever encountered Baroness Von Bülop, he would have met his match.



18 comments:

Debra said...

Lovely !!!!!
I'm greatly enthused. I am forwarding the post to a Welsh Internet friend I have never met in the flesh and blood.
On a related note... I watched "Midnight in Paris" last weekend. Although jazz may be the devil's invention, Cole Porter is pretty neat.
Yes, lots of things went out with the carriage.

lividlili said...

Ha! So much love for this. Von Bulow looks like a real piece of work... As does Beaton. It ought to be a classic!

Dale said...

I have a few of those creaking old aristos' autobiographies of that vintage (courtesy church fairs and jumble sales, usually) and would love to add this to my collection; it sounds right up my street.

Is it available for sale,by chance?

Dale in New Zealand

Steerforth said...

Debra - I hope your Welsh friend likes it.

Lividlili - It should be a classic. I don't know why it has been forgotten.

Dale - There are a few copies knocking around on AbeBooks.

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Debra said...

I checked it out on Amazon, and found a single, lonely copy for sale at an outrageous price (for me, at any rate...)
I'm taking this opportunity to tell you that I buy books through Amazon, mostly used books from amazon sellers.
Because I'm a permanent expatriot, and it is hard for me to get the English books I want any other way. Buying them locally doesn't give me much range of choice, even if I don't read the bestsellers anyway, and have never dipped into the memoirs of an aristocrat. (Just "The Diary of a Provincial Lady" a while ago, but that doesn't count, does it ?)
But.. I will make an effort to give some business to our small local English bookshop which is very inconveniently located by the way...
Cheers.

Steerforth said...

Thank you for your semi-literate spam comment 'photography Seattle'. If either of my sons get married, I will bear you in mind as a potential wedding photographer.

Steerforth said...

Debra - Try AbeBooks - owned by Amazon. Their prices are generally lower.

sukipoet said...

amusing post

Grey Area said...

That's quite a find, I picked up something called 'Ermyntrude and Esmerelda' by Lytton Strachey in Oxfam for 25p once, I bought it for the illustrations - closer inspection revealed something that should never be left in a room with small children or maiden aunts *cough*

Universal Acknowledgement said...

Thanks! I'd spent the day with deeply earnest people, so this post lifted my spirits! The Baroness is a little like Lady Blanche Addle (a creation of Mary Dunn). "In spite of the success of my first book...I had determined never to take up my pen again...A heart bared once should not be bared again. This resolve was strengthened by my publisher, whom I visited almost daily..."

Steerforth said...

Thanks Suki.

Richard - I'll have to look out for the Strachey. I've never come across it, but I see that there are quite a few on sale. It sounds right up my street.

Universal Acknowledgement - How awful to spend a whole day with deeply earnest people. You have my sympathies. I hope that you behaved better than I do when I'm surrounded by people who are terribly serious.

I see that Lady Addle is on sale for a penny on Amazon (plus postage, of course), so I'm tempted, even if two out of the three reviews don't go higher than "Quite amusing". I love books like this.

Hester said...


Mark Bunyan, a composer of my acquaintance, once wrote a musical theatre version of Ermyntrude and Esmerelda but it seems it was never staged.

Lucy R. Fisher said...

Ermyntrude and Esmeralda was reissued in the late 60s - brilliant pix by Erté. Steerforth, you'll love it, it's really rude.

Love the idea of the aristos living in hotels and restaurants and mixing with parvenues.

Steerforth said...

Hester - I've just looked at his website. What a pity it hasn't been staged - and with only a small cast, it wouldn't cost too much to put on.

Lucy - I shall have to order a copy after reading these recommendations.

I also want to know more about 'Tony', who seems a bit of a character in his own right.

Richard de pesando MA(RCA) said...

... as we are on the subject of Erte, the convocation for my MA was at the Royal Albert Hall, and Erte was the special investiture - he was very, very old (I was shocked that he was still alive) and frankly - more than a bit bewildered by it all. My mother - who was a complete fantasist and terrible snob - was more impressed by this than the 7 years of backbreaking work I'd just gone through to gain my Masters (without any help from my family - who thought Ii was a waster). From that point on, whenever I spoke to her on the phone, she would ignore anything I had to tell her and say "But how is your friend, Erte?" - she could never understand why I hadn't made the effort to 'keep up' - I was living in a council flat in the wrong part of Peckham at the time.

Richard (Grey Area)

The Poet Laura-eate said...

Splendid stuff! What a find!

A clearer view said...

I have a copy of the original Batsford edition (1939). Very funny in a dated sort of way - you have to enter into the spirit of the era (Incidentally I used to work for Batsford, when it was still an independent publisher).