Walking like Swinburne
- Serious Pleasures: The Life of Stephen Tennant by Philip Hoare
Hamish Hamilton, 463 pp, £20.00, June 1990, ISBN 0 241 12416 6
It is worth stating a few facts about Stephen Tennant, the subject of this excellent biography by Philip Hoare, in case some readers may not have heard of him. He was born in 1906, the son of a rich industrialist, Edward Tennant, who became Lord Glenconner in 1911, and of Pamela Wyndham, one of the Wyndham sisters immortalised by Sargent in his painting The Three Graces. Margot Tennant, who married Asquith, the Liberal prime minister, was his paternal aunt.
Tennant spent his childhood in the Glenconners’ mock-Jacobean mansion Wilsford Manor, in Wiltshire, being spoiled and doted upon by his mother (described by Hoare as a ‘dreamy beauty, yet with a steely will’) and seeing very little of his earnestly public-spirited father. The story goes that when Lord Glenconner once lined up his younger sons to ask them what they wanted to become, Stephen, to his father’s alarm, replied: ‘I want to be a Great Beauty, sir.’ The true centre of his emotional life now, and later, was his Cockney nurse Nannie Trusler. For a year or two, in late adolescence, he attended – or rather, did not often attend – the Slade, forming a close relationship there with Rex Whistler and his brother, Laurence. His health was considered frail, and this allowed him to travel to various desirable bits of Europe, always with Nannie Trusler at his side. At Wilsford Manor there were lavish weekend parties, frequented by well-known artists and society figures.
The gossip-columnists began to take an interest in Tennant in the mid-Twenties, first because of his escapades in interior-decoration – he turned his apartment in the family’s London house in Smith Square into ‘The Silver Room’, furnishing it with silver-foil wall-coverings, silver-topped tables, silver satin curtains and a polar bearskin rug or two – and then because of his eye-catching appearance, his jewels and magenta lipstick and gold-dusted hair. In the year of the Bright Young Things and their parties, those parties dear to our imagination from Vile Bodies, Stephen Tennant, arriving in his Edwardian electric brougham, dressed perhaps in a football jersey and earrings, became a star attraction, rivalled only by Brian Howard. There was an outburst of gossip when he became the centre of the ‘Ellesmere Ball Row’, when a hostess accused him of gate-crashing, and a louder one when, round 1928, he began an affair with Siegfried Sassoon.
These were his halcyon days. He had become an institution, and an institution he remained throughout the next chequered sixty years, when – the affair with Sassoon having broken down – he became, essentially, a recluse, though with loyal servants and a glamorous array of friends. He suffered and recovered from a nervous breakdown or two; he drew, he painted, he rewrote seven times a putative ‘masterwork’ entitled Lascar, about sailors and brothel life in Marseilles, and he put Wilsford Manor through an endless series of transformations. There was the time of the nautical suite, with fishnets and trompe l’oeil portholes and white plaster ropes; there were palm-tree lamps and oystershell-encrusted consoles, lizards running free, and a welter of ancient straw hats; as time went by, the washbasins and baths filled up with pebbles and leaves (so much more beautiful when seen under water), and a trail of ‘still-lives’ littered the floors from room to room. It was Wilsford that gave meaning to his life and enabled him to combat boredom, and it was amid its clutter that, only three years ago, he died.
Vanbrugh’s fop explains:
My life, madam, is a perpetual stream of pleasure, that glides thro’ such a variety of entertainments, I believe the wisest of our ancestors never had the least conception of any of ’em. I rise, madam, about ten o’clock. I don’t rise sooner, because ’tis the worst thing in the world for the complection; nat that I pretend to be a beau; but a man must endeavour to look wholesome, lest he make so nauseous a figure in the side-bax, the ladies shou’d be compelled to turn their eyes upon the play. So at ten o’clock, I say, I rise. Naw, if I find it a good day, I resalve to take a turn in the park, and see the fine women; so huddle on my clothes, and get dress’d by one.
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