Walking like Swinburne

P.N. Furbank

  • 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.

Vanbrugh’s would be one way of treating the story of Stephen Tennant, who, in his period, was surely the supreme British fop? It might indeed be the right way; and certainly, for a keen reader of Twenties biographies, it would be no hard job to identify Lord Foppington’s friends my Lady Tattle, my Lady Prate, my Lady Titter and my Lady Leer. Comedy could also be right for another reason: the point about Stephen Tennant is that he kept up the trade of foppery, good-humouredly, through thick and thin, from the moment when he was magically good-looking – a ‘society beauty’ if ever there was one – to the time, fifty years later, when he was an elephantine, painted, scented, toothless and hermit-like grotesque.

Another approach would be the psychoanalytic one, and it is an invitation to get one’s thoughts straight about narcissism. Freud’s theory of narcissism is impressive but not quite what one wants here; and anyway, for Freud, narcissism, at least in its extreme forms, took its victim out of the range of psychoanalysis. Let us, instead, consider what Victoria Hamilton says about it in Narcissus and Oedipus: I find it rather sympathetic. According to her, it is wrong to speak of a narcissist as in love with himself (or herself); he (or she) is, rather, and very specifically – as the legend implies – in love with his own image. He first saw that image reflected in his mother’s face (where it was a combination of his expression and hers), and, as a result of failure to reach the Oedipal stage, the stage of the quest for knowledge, he remains fixated on this reflection. Tiresias’s prophecy for Narcissus was that he would live to a ripe old age, provided that he never knew himself: and searching for your own reflection is evidently a good way of not attaining knowledge about yourself. It is part of what Hamilton calls the ‘average history’ of Narcissus that he is fatally drawn to the nymph Echo, who has been punished for curiosity by losing all power to initiate. All Echo can do for Narcissus is, excitingly at first and then frustratingly and boringly, to offer him back his own reflection. Thus the poor fellow, fallen for by a succession of Echoes, lives through a series of crises – crises of boredom. His life’s task, as it presents itself to him, is to find ways to defeat boredom.

There seems to be a lot of Stephen Tennant here. He certainly did not remotely want to know a crucial fact: that he had no talent – or rather, he ‘knew’ it in some sense, and was extremely successful in blotting the knowledge out. Then, for the pool of Narcissus, need we look further than the lens of his lifelong friend, Cecil Beaton? Their friendship, from its earliest days, positively throve on the camera, and Tennant’s tributes to his own camera image are so whole-hearted, so zestful, that one cannot help, sneakingly, admiring him for his nerve. ‘I’m nearly crazy at their beauty,’ he wrote to Beaton about the latest photos of himself. ‘I just go on looking at them in a dream of bliss, the mackintosh looks so romantic & the positions are nearly all good, I think ... About seven or eight are quite perfect, luscious & dazzling & melting & the bare shoulder ones are like a sculpture, too beautiful for words!’ Also, with the vain and arriviste Cecil Beaton in mind, one cannot help thinking of Oscar Wilde’s fable about the pool of Narcissus. Someone asked the pool if Narcissus had really been as beautiful as everyone said. He replied that he couldn’t remember, he had been so preoccupied with his own reflection in Narcissus’s eyes.

It is a golden, or an iron rule that, however much in love yourself, you must not ask a narcissist to be in love with you. How could he be? He has this other, permanent and very taxing love-affair on his hands, the one with his own image; anything further would represent promiscuity. The narcissist may, however, find you a suitable role. How Stephen Tennant coped with Siegfreid Sassoon, when the latter fell in love with him, was straightforward and predictable. He promptly developed tuberculosis, thus casting Sassoon in the role of a nurse, the next best thing to a nanny. It was a sound move in the circumstances, though in the long run it did not work out – perhaps because Sassoon was no mean narcissist himself.

Tennant’s decisive diary-entry, after their four-year affair, reads, for once, rather seriously and ‘knowingly’.

25 October 1930. Emerson says: ‘Today is a King in disguise.’ When I’m with Sieg there is nothing in disguise. I do miss him – but I’m better alone.

He sent a message through his doctor that, since Sassoon’s last visit, his feelings towards him were not what they had once been: Sassoon upset him and made him ill, and he could not see him again. And that was that. Sassoon was outraged and bitter: but at least, one reflects, Tennant had not seriously led him to expect anything different. He was not a hypocrite. He never pretended that Sassoon could distract him from that taxing life-task imposed on him by Nature, that of being Stephen Tennant.

There are, it is true, stories that dispose one somewhat more against Tennant. Philip Hoare relates one, as told by the Hon. David Herbert, about his treatment of the actress Margaret Rutherford. He cultivated her assiduously – even, more or less, proposing marriage to her – and she fell for his charms, and then when one day she came to his house for the weekend, he quite shattered her by simply refusing to allow her in. The butler, taking pity on her, let her in after all, only (according to Herbert’s highly-coloured story) to find her later in the cellar, eating coal.

What were the circumstances causing a common condition to be acted out on such a spectacular scale? Two obvious ones come to mind. The narcissistic condition entails a prolongation of those infantile fantasies of omnipotence of which Freud makes so much, and there is no more effective symbol of omnipotence than money, of which Tennant had heaps and heaps. The role of money, in Tennant’s imagination, was to make things happen instantly, without effort, at the wave of a wand – and this, after all, was no illusion. In the last years, we are told, he got to love Bournemouth and suggested to his elder brother, Lord Glenconner, that Wilsford Manor should be transported to this South Coast town brick by brick. His brother gently demurred. Thereupon Tennant ordered two truckloads of fine sand and a painted canvas backdrop depicting sandy cliffs, and thus Bournemouth was brought to Wilsford.

Secondly, if he rhapsodised extravagantly about his own beauty – as he did even in old age, when he looked appalling – he was, as a young man, astonishingly beautiful, with a thinness and grace and way of holding himself with a willowy twist and droop of the limbs that captivated spectators of every persuasion. When Jacob Epstein, who sculpted him, was asked who was the most beautiful person, male or female, he had ever seen, he replied: ‘Oh Stephen Tennant, Stephen Tennant, absolutely without a doubt.’ It may be added that Thomas Hardy said that Tennant was the ‘only other man he had ever met who walked like Swinburne’. The remark reminds one that, in ‘A Singer Asleep’, Hardy was inspired to a subtle pastiche of Swinburne. There was a good deal of the aesthete, not to mention the Fin-de-Siècle, in Hardy.

Tennant was really a Restoration-style aristocratic fop, but, this being Britain and the 20th century, his pretensions had to be aesthetic, and it does not reflect too well on British culture that there were people – though not all that many – ready to tell him that he had artistic gifts. If he had had just a little talent, it would have been a different matter: one ought to encourage talent, however minor, and much can be done with a small talent. But, as a glance will tell us, Tennant had absolutely no talent at all whether for drawing and painting or as a writer. He also had no taste, or rather the most abominable taste; and it was perhaps bewilderment that any artist’s style could be so unutterably debased, could – as Cyril Connolly fumed – ‘embrace every cliché, every vulgarity, every banal and cheaply-scented expression’, that persuaded people that there must be something there. Later on, for friends are loyal, there was a mild effort to represent him as a precursor of Andy Warhol.

We need not too much mourn this delusion about his art, so far as Tennant himself is concerned. Had he possessed some small gift, he might well have broken his heart over non-recognition. As it was, he greatly enjoyed drawing and painting and was very prolific. Philip Hoare gives a nice description of him, happily dashing in the colour-washes on some sketch of a full-lipped actress or a python crawling up a Doric column, while another ‘miniature abstract-expressionist composition’ of splashes formed on the carpet round his stool. He greatly relished talking and writing about his writing, too, splashing epithets around as freely as he did paint. He was hurt or peevish when people slighted his work, just as we would be, but not in any tragic way. What might bother us a little more is the terms in which his art, or efforts at art, are sometimes discussed, and in particular that he should be compared with Ronald Firbank. (Philip Hoare is not quite innocent here.) When observed in the Café Royal, Firbank was, no doubt, in his shyer way, almost as wriggling and épater-ing as Tennant himself: but there the likeness ends. For Firbank was a writer of genius, a truly innovative artist, inspired – precisely – by the perfect absurdity of all ‘decadent’ attitudes.

All the same, one feels a certain tenderness towards Stephen Tennant. He did have the courage of consistency. Also, though he was not exactly a generous man and could be very stingy if he felt like it, he had a commitment to admiration which served some of the same purpose and was by no means purely gush. I wrote to him about E.M. Forster in the Seventies and received back a succession of letters. They were written on a plan of his own, according to which every word was underlined and then several more underlinings could be added for emphasis. They were, however, very good letters, not only attractively and ungrudgingly warm towards Forster but – this was rather striking – reproducing Forster’s elusive mots, and fragments of his conversation, with real accuracy – something one did not often encounter. He invited me to come and stay the night at Wilsford, though I never did, and urged me, agreeably, to ‘Rest a lot.’

Does one need quite such a long life of Stephen Tennant? Are not so many bizarreries bound finally to weary us, since they do not tell us much more than we had already grasped? I am inclined to regard these as questions between Philip Hoare and his publishers; and, granted his project, he has made a most resourceful job of it. His strategy, probably sensible, is to maintain a certain reticence over his own attitude towards Tennant. He even-handedly quotes all the tributes paid to him and all the rude things said about him, and he describes Tennant’s aspirations non-committally and straightfacedly, leaving us to make what we will of them. Where he most shows his hand, and to great effect, is in the occasional tart formulation. ‘Siegfried continued to lavish presents on Stephen, who appeared to be buying enough for himself.’ He can paraphrase Tennant’s thought-processes with a nice accuracy, saying, for instance, when Tennant commands ‘large heads’ of himself from Cecil Beaton, that it was ‘as though he were a mother sending her son to the barber’s’. His comic timing is sometimes admirable, as when he blandly drops in Tennant’s brother’s kindly letter: ‘Dearest Stephen, I think the first thing to find out about the seal pool is how much it would cost to maintain and look after the seals.’

On the liaison with Siegfried Sassoon, Hoare writes perhaps a shade too conventionally. ‘Homosexuality’ seems too broad and gather-all a term to say much about that affair. Also, I jib strongly at Hoare’s remark (that is to say at the logic of it) when he writes: ‘But Stephen’s attitude to other races was hardly racist; he was far too interested in them for that.’ His ‘Coda’, depicting the selling-up of the contents of Tennant’s weird palace and the wave of liking for Tennant which succeeded his bilious obituaries, is humane, just, and an altogether effective piece of writing.