Stephen Tennant - Muses & The Beau Monde
Updated: Jul 29, 2020
"Stephen Tennant is the most sparkling talker who ever comes to my house, and perhaps the most amusing."
"Stephen Tennant was the most delightfully fey, flamboyantly stylish, and gleefully "himself" person. He took the job title of "idle rich" to the extremes, spending most of his life in bed, but he did this in gold-dusted, finger waved hair and Charles James satin leopard pyjamas."
Known as "the brightest" of the "Bright Young People" Stephen Tennant, born 21 April 1906 in Wilsford cum Lake, was an artist, writer and British socialite and is my ultimate muse.
When I first discovered him in a scented letter by the Perfumed Dandy and began researching him, what mostly came up was that he was a spoiled and shallow man who wasted his life in bed never completing any of his work. This could not be further from the truth.
“Stephen Tennant is the most sparkling talker who ever comes to my house, and perhaps the most amusing. He dances like the will-o'-the-wisp where other people stick in the mud. Though his really kindred spirits are the most exotic people he can find, he also greatly enjoys a talk with some extremely commonplace person, when he pretends that he thinks they mean something which they never thought of in their lives. He can be by turns poetic, malicious, and nonsensical. His talk is very pictorial and he handles words as if they were paint on a brush. When Stephen is alone with one friend he is often drawn to speak of very grave and profound subjects, and then he becomes unhappy, for he is never sure about what he loves and believes in, and would like to love and believe in so much.”
― Edith Olivier, Without Knowing Mr Walkley
While he did spend the last years of his life in bed for the first forty years of his life he didn't waste a second. He was ill as a child and had tuberculosis in his teens and early twenties but survived and thrived. As someone who is also seriously ill and has been now for there quarters of my life, seeing how much he lived whilst being ill and how much life he lived after he recovered, all the while looking elegant and beautiful is seriously inspiring for me.
While he may not have completed the main book he was writing "Lascar", he finished many pieces of art, wrote and published many shorter illustrated stories, created artwork to decorate books for his friends and family's work and had multiple exhibitions for his art, which were all well received. He was intelligent and well read and well he may not be a perfect human being he certainly was not a bad person and was very generous and loving to his friends.
I was lucky enough to pick up a catalogue at Oxfam (for £19.99, valued at over £100, find of my life!) for his exhibition of paintings and fantasies held at the Sagittarius Gallery, Rome April 1956. Inside is a catalogue of the paintings that were exhibited, an open letter to Rex Nan Kivell at The Redfern Gallery London, "Abstract Art is a clarifier", a reassessment of poetry and a poem "On Lovers Earth".
This was the first time I had the opportunity to read his writing, usually only a few lines on a Christmas card here and there, and reading his thoughts on art and poetry compared to the image the online magazines had always referred to him as was a surprising and a much hoped for eye opener.
Here is some highlights from the catalogue.
A Reassessment of Poetry - Stephen Tennant
One day of life is a miracle, more daring and more lasting than any so called adventure. It is the formless material of art. The tender pleasure in a kiss on a dull day, the pleasure in zest and hard work, the joy of achievement, the beauty of laughter and of small foolish things, these are all part of time's vast poetry and their quintessential value lies in the present, the hour we call "now".
No day is really commonplace, or wasted or lost. The most trivial thought has a touch of exaltation about it since it is human and real. It is part of the vast flux of history. Poetry should not merely be a luxury or a tabulated, extraneous pleasure, alone in a niche, nor is it only for the discerning few. It is like leaves and fire, the winds, and the stars, water, moss, wood and metal. It is the grist and the wherewithal of life and work, the muscle and fibre of daily life, the mystery of the passing mood. As the poet Lawrence Whistler says : "We are here in this hour at the extension of eternity".
Fine language is a luxury and a need. Great thoughts and wise make of solitude and quiet regal places, summer palaces and hanging gardens.
The printed page is an enchanting surface, simple enough to be casual, not pompous or pretentious, yet always amenable of possible splendours.
Another thing Stephen is most known for is his romance with the war poet and writer Siegfried Sassoon. They met at a party at Stephens home, Wilsford Manor and then drove out together to Stonehenge (you could drive your car straight up to the stones in those days). The connection between the two was instant.
"He put his mouth over mine crushing it - some kisses seem to draw the very soul out of one's body - his do mine. I feel all my heart swooning at the touch of his mouth - my soul dies a hundred million deaths when his face is on my face and neck."
He was also the first patron of Cecil Beaton and became his model, along with many others of the bright young people, for dozens of beautiful photographs. The parties held of Wilsford Manor would have been a hotbed of creatives and writers and wonderfully intelligent conversations and of course lots of dressing up.
Stephen planned a fancy dress dinner, at which Edith Olivier noted guests became gradually hungrier waiting for Stephen, who eventually appeared wearing a white Russian suit, silver train and bandeau round his head. This meal was then followed by a game of hide and seek.
'The Honourable Stephen Tennant arrived in an electric Brougham wearing a football jersey and earrings'
- William Hickey, Dailey Express, 1927
Stephen had an obsession with shells, he collected all colours and creeds from his home shores and from traveling abroad, placing them on the staircase, and even going as far as having one of the bathrooms as a ‘shrine to shells’.
He went shell hunting with Siegfried Sassoon in Sicily, and Sassoon gave Tennant a copy of Swainson’s ‘Exotic Conchology’ inscribed:
War has its idiot Shells:
How different are these,
Designed by diligent Nature
For her Devotees…
From SS Oct. 3 1929’
Stephens biography, written by Phillip Hoare, is over flowing with information and stories about Stephen in much more detail and I highly recommend it for anyone who is intrigued by Stephen and I would most certainly hope you are.
... the exact limitations of one's taste should be an intense pleasure...Most people are never sure what they like. Pleasure should be a deep, as well as a light thing. You should name the book of your life 'Serious Pleasures'.
- Stephen Tennant
Reading Recommendations & Content Considerations
Serious Pleasures Swainson's Exotic Conchology
Philip Hoare William Swainson
In his introduction to Tennant’s ‘Leaves from a Missionary’s Notebook: The Adventures of Felix Littlejohn’ first published in 1929 at the age of 23, he quotes Tancred Borenius:
‘the house should be made airtight and preserved intact just as it is at the moment, so that future generations may see these incredibly delicate and vivid colours, the vases of artificial roses and lilac, the whole paraphernalia of Stephen’s taste, which astonishes even his few intimate friends and would be quite incomprehensible to future generations’.
Below is a collection of photos from Wilsford Manor
Below, a small selection of Stephens artwork and a few pages from his travel diaries
Many of Stephen's art pieces and personal objects are collected by Viktor Wynd who owns and runs "The Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, Fine Art & Natural History". If anyone is as passionate about collecting Stephen's work as I, it's Mr Wynd.
Below is one of the few film clips of Stephen from the documentary on Cecil Beaton - 'Love, Cecil'.