Stephen Tennant’s letters, thought Stephen Spender, had been “the essence of English retention—objects for personal consumption, deluxe samizdats.” Tennant additionally wrote poems, painted photos, and labored on a novel, by no means to be accomplished. His most important revealed work was his 1949 foreword to his pal Willa Cather’s essay assortment, recommended by Cather students and nonetheless in print at the moment.
Cecil Barton, Stephen Tennant (©The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s)
By the point of its reclusive occupant’s demise in 1987, the faux-Elizabethan nation manor Wilsford, in Wiltshire close to Stonehenge, overflowed with a dusty mishmash of useful antiques, ephemeral gewgaws, and unique objets d’artwork. Exterior, ivy shrouded the gables and moss thickened on the roof tiles. Within the overgrown gardens stood a myriad of uncared for statuary, marble urns, stone columns, and rococo fountains. To disperse all of it, Sotheby’s hosted lots of of potential bidders, over 4 days, at what they described as an “English eccentric’s dream home.” Mentioned eccentric was Stephen Tennant, who was born at Wilsford in 1906 and died there, aged eighty-one. In line with his devoted housekeeper and nurse, Sylvia Blandford, he’d have turned in his grave on the spectacle of his possessions being pawed over and auctioned off piece by piece. However he had left no will. Demise was not, maybe, a notion permitted inside Tennant’s elaborate fantasy world, into which he had retreated ever deeper because the many years handed.
Like a fairy-tale character magically granted each conceivable blessing, solely to find these blessings carry a curse, the Honorary Stephen James Napier Tennant started life arrayed with elegant benefit. His father, Sir Edward Tennant, got here from a household who owed their huge wealth to a Scottish ancestor’s invention and patenting of bleach powder in 1799. Edward’s blue-blooded spouse, Pamela Wyndham, was a socialite who courted the main artists and writers of the day. Pamela doted on Stephen, her youngest baby of 5, and inspired him in his inventive pursuits. As he was turning fifteen, she even organized for his first artwork exhibition, at a revered London gallery. All the largest nationwide newspapers lined the occasion, providing fawning reward of the artist and his work. It will need to have been intoxicating certainly. And but, as any former baby star will attest, nothing warps one’s sense of self like youthful celeb.
If Pamela took a eager curiosity in her precocious adolescent’s creative promise, she paid little consideration to his reckless habits, resembling his behavior of providing native troopers a cigarette in alternate for a kiss. As soon as, when an encounter went additional than a kiss, he was apprehended and introduced house by a policeman, who assumed the boy would face penalties. He was mistaken. Sir Edward had just lately died, and it by no means occurred to Pamela that Steenie, as he was identified, must be something however his uninhibited self. Tennant’s present for top camp, cultivated as least partly as camouflage for shyness, was at all times displayed at heroic ranges. On one go to to New York, he disembarked the ship in full make-up, his hair in marcel waves, with a bunch of orchids in his hand. “Pin ‘em on!” jeered a customs officer, to which Tennant responded: “Oh, have you ever bought a pin? What a beautiful welcome … you type, type creature.” John Waters, who in 2015 named Philip Hoare’s wonderful biography of Tennant as one among his ten favourite books, put it thusly: “Aubrey Beardsley, Ronald Firbank, Denton Welch—consider me, Stephen Tennant made all of them appear butch.”
It was within the late twenties, when Tennant was round twenty-one, that his life peaked. Among the many so-called Vivid Younger Folks, whose decadence and penchant for fancy gown stored gossip columnists in brisk commerce, he shone the brightest. “His look alone,” the Every day Specific rhapsodized, “is sufficient to make you catch your breath.” He impressed Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh characters, was sculpted by Jacob Epstein, wrote model columns, and stole the present within the group images that helped launch Cecil Beaton’s century-defining profession.
Quickly after Beaton was launched to Tennant in late 1926, he accepted an invite to Tennant’s house, Wilsford, for the weekend. “My complete go to from starting to finish,” the twenty-three-year-old Beaton recorded in his diary, “was like being on the most good play. Right here Stephen was saying superb issues all the time—humorous, trite, important, importantly precise issues.” Tennant’s affect was formative, believes Beaton’s biographer, Hugo Vickers. “Whereas Stephen was removed from wanting concepts, he lacked the stamina to hold them out himself. Thus he was usually the inspiration of an concept and Cecil its executor.”
Tennant’s lack of stamina, each psychological and bodily, was to be the prevailing theme of his existence. His fragility haunted and doomed his one grand passionate affair: with Siegfried Sassoon, the revered poet and struggle hero turned pacifist. They first met via associates in the summertime of 1927, when Tennant was twenty-one and Sassoon forty-one. Tennant’s preliminary impression of Sassoon, he later reminisced, was of “some charming wild animal—one by no means felt he was actually tame (or tameable).” An immediately smitten Sassoon puzzled if this fey youth, so stunning and narcissistic, was able to love. But fall head over heels in love Tennant did. Quickly, he was addressing Sassoon as “My coronary heart’s greatest beloved” in letters, and the poet was composing sonnets to him. Throughout their relationship, Sassoon assumed the function of caretaker to his delicate, pampered lover—who, having grown up a sickly baby and suffered from tuberculosis since his late teenagers, periodically took to his mattress for weeks. Sassoon fortunately stored shut vigil. “I ask for nothing,” he wrote in April 1929, when Tennant was recovering from a lung operation, “however to be close to him at all times.”
To Sassoon’s torment, Tennant started asking for solitude throughout his bouts of invalidism. In response to this rejection, the poet moved right into a home close to Wilsford and took to lurking across the grounds, earlier than going house to drink and weep. His hopes that they could, in spite of everything, have a future had been raised when he was allowed in to see Tennant on a number of events. And after the affected person was recognized with neurasthenia and admitted to a psychiatric hospital, Sassoon visited him there, too. However the remaining break, when it occurred, was brutal. In Could 1933, Sassoon obtained a letter from Tennant’s physician. “He says you upset him and make him really feel unwell,” Dr. T. A. Ross wrote, “and that he can’t see you once more.” Sassoon was shocked. By the tip of the 12 months, he had proposed to a girl, Hester Gatty. She was Tennant’s age, twenty-seven, and mentioned to resemble him. The wedding was not a hit.
From then on, Tennant romanticized his time with Sassoon, whom no different lover would eclipse in his self-mythology. “It’s fairly paradoxical,” Philip Hoare observes, “that having so summarily dismissed Siegfried, Stephen ought to seemingly spend the remainder of his life regretting the motion—or, no less than, frequently recalling the years he spent with Sassoon as an idyllic misplaced previous.” Rose-tinted reminiscences, abstractions, had been preferable to a actuality wherein his idealizations could be threatened. “I’m a type of unhappy individuals,” Tennant wrote, “who wish to be cherished with out being identified—to be a beautiful reminiscence, a legend, a glory…” His arch manners, ultra-glamorous primping, and brazen flouting of masculine taboos all stored the world at arm’s size. As Beaton mirrored, “so a lot of Stephen’s eccentricities and poses had been part of his sickness.” Alas, these self-preservation methods had been fallible, and Tennant relapsed into bodily sickness and despair many extra instances. Within the late forties and once more within the fifties, he underwent a number of rounds of ECT beneath common anesthetic.
The identical phobia of being seen thwarted Tennant’s literary ambitions. As a younger man, he wrote no less than one novel, which he selected to not publish. And he spent many many years on his projected magnum opus, a Marseilles-inspired novel to be titled “Lascar,” conceived in 1938 and by no means to be accomplished. He revised, rewrote, and reconfigured the story of, in his phrases, “crude wishes, lusts, fidelities, and treacheries.” He started different novels, and engaged in such procrastinatory actions as illustrations and designing covers, solely to return to it. In 1941 Cyril Connolly’s journal, Horizon, revealed a “Lascar” cowl that includes one among Tennant’s personal work. In Connolly’s opinion, he was “an attention-grabbing and pathetic phenomenon, an awesome author who can’t write.” E. M. Forster, in the meantime, learn sections and urged Tennant to keep it up. Numerous different writer associates provided type phrases and recommendation, together with Elizabeth Bowen, Rosamond Lehmann, and Willa Cather, whose work he idolized. (He wasn’t very keen on male writers.) The American novelist, an unlikely however shut pal, mentioned she had excessive hopes for “Lascar.” Within the eighth decade of Tennant’s life, and of the century, by which level he hardly ever ventured past the perimeter of Wilsford, he was nonetheless, supposedly, engaged on it.
Tennant’s slide into inanition was gradual however inexorable. In early center age, he nonetheless took journeys overseas and socialized in between durations of seclusion. Then, from round age fifty, he spent ever extra time at house. In his bed room, strewn together with his favourite books, work, outdated images, diaries, and mementos, he might luxuriate in remembrance and overlook he was now not that ravishing younger aesthete, so filled with promise. “I was stunning such as you, are you able to see that?” he requested Marie Helvin, who dropped by one summer time with the inside designer Nicky Haslam. “I was so stunning… It’s a factor we are able to by no means cease being, can we?”
Callers had been obtained as Tennant reclined on his unmade mattress. He solely bought up in June, he’d clarify, to see the roses. In fact, he typically went buying: a lifelong occupation was shopping for furnishings and curios for the home and gardens; the extra recherché, the higher. A 1966 letter from his brother Christopher, who taken care of his funds, advised mildly: “I feel the very first thing to search out out in regards to the seal pool is how a lot it might price to keep up and take care of the seals.”
The correspondence Tennant produced from his sequestration was copious, and arrived scented and illustrated. He additionally continued to color, and infrequently exhibited. In 1976, at age seventy, he had a joint present at a Mayfair gallery with the surrealist artist Cecil Collins. The Connoisseur journal mentioned of Tennant’s work: “The whole lot conspires to create an charisma and romance… There may be an air of fin de siècle, a time previous and fascinating, however now irrevocably out of attain.” Tennant, unwilling to burst his personal rigorously original bubble of nostalgia and phantasm, declined to attend the exhibition’s personal view. “I don’t wish to see any associates or neighbors ever once more,” he informed Beaton a few years later. “I’m a complete unhappy recluse alas. I’m an entire failure in each method.” The photographer, who had just lately suffered a stroke, was shaken. “It’s the finish of an epoch!” he famous sadly in his diary.
Tennant’s closest neighbor in his remaining years was V. S. Naipaul, who lived together with his spouse, Patricia Hale, in a cottage on Wilsford’s grounds between 1971 and 1986. The 2 males by no means met, although Tennant would ship his housekeeper over with little presents of poems and photos. And because of the tales Naipaul heard from workers and guests, Tennant grew to become a central presence in his autobiographical novel The Enigma of Arrival. On this melancholic introspection on the thought of house, the author/narrator diagnoses his hidden landlord with acedia, a profound religious dejection. He astutely speculates on the trigger: “Maybe he had stalled in what could be thought of an earlier state of perfection,” that’s, his youthful id in all its glory. “However that perfection … had turned to morbidity, acedia, a demise of the soul.” He additionally muses on how the Tennant character’s excessive privilege, rooted within the dying British Empire, is the mirror picture of his personal impoverished beginnings within the colonial Caribbean. “I felt I might perceive his malaise; I noticed it as the opposite aspect of my very own… Privilege lay between us. However I had an intimation that it labored towards him.”
Tennant by no means learn The Enigma of Arrival, which was revealed in March 1987, lower than three weeks after his demise. He would have appreciated it, given his discerning literary style and need for immortality. As he inquired of a pal, fortunately and rhetorically, a number of years earlier: “Am I a legend? I suppose I’m. How thrilling!” He stays so, a century on from his first style of the limelight as a teenage artist. Within the publicity for “Cecil Beaton’s Vivid Younger Issues” (an exhibition beforehand as a consequence of run this spring at London’s Nationwide Portrait Gallery), and the accompanying e-book (out now within the UK and the U.S.), Tennant upstages his friends simply as he did within the twenties. Beaton’s images seize that portentous, good second upon which, in a tragic sense, Tennant’s complete life would pivot. He seems in them as he at all times wished to be seen: otherworldly, untouchable in his magnificence, and eerily, eternally trendy.
Emma Garman has written about books and tradition for Lapham’s Quarterly Roundtable, Longreads, Newsweek, The Every day Beast, Salon, The Axe, Phrases with out Borders, and different publications. She was the primary author of the Every day’s Feminize Your Canon column.