The Early Years
In the summer of 1922 at the age of 16 Stephen began attending the Slade School of Art. The Slade introduced him to another young student who would become one of his best friends - Rex Whistler.
“To Stephen, Whistler appeared ‘plump, thickset, very boyish… with a manner both impulsive and diffident.’ Rex’s own initial impression of Stephen was that of a ‘slender figure, extraordinary beauty, like a more delicate Shelley’; and it was his poetry that established the bond between them. Over sandwiches in the Quad, Stephen read aloud from Walter de la Mare, while Rex ‘made pictures of “Peacock Pie” and of “Henry Brocken”, and the book we loved best of all was 'The Secret Garden’ (Rex depicted Stephen as the sickly hero of the book). Edgar Allan Poe’s verses were read aloud, ‘“Ulalume” and “Annabel Lee” - we often recited “The Raven”,’ recalled Stephen.”
“The boys shared a love of legends and mythology, and found a ‘strong reciprocal bond in the passionate vividness of our imaginations’. They also loved American cars and Hollywood movies, westerns being particularly favoured. They hummed American pop songs of the day, and mooned over white-faced heroines of the silver screen. When signing in for the morning, Stephen would write alongside Rex’s name comments such as ‘Disgracefully late’, ‘Report on arrival’ or ‘Unnecessarily early’.”
“Stephen and Rex undertook expeditions together, to the Department of Egyptology at the British Museum, or on boat trips down the Thames, to the Pool of London, in ‘romantic moonlight… dressed as bargees’. There were wild parties with friends in Hampstead, afterwards walking on the Heath ‘for miles in the dawn, singing - all arm in arm - in the summer dawn.’ For the two young boys, it was their ‘Kingdom by the Sea’ - a line from Poe’s “Annabel Lee” that they would use on the backs of envelopes in letters to each other:
I was a child and she was a child
In this Kingdom by the sea:
But we loved with a love that was more than love-
I and my Annabel Lee…
Rex wrote out the poem and decorated it in his Anthology of Mine. The illustrations in this little compilation of favourite poems, with their decadent ladies and ghostly figures, showed how closely entwined were the friends’ creative imaginations (Stephen’s own face can be discerned as another dead lover, in Tennyson’s ‘Tears, Idle Tears’, lying white and seraphic at the foot of one of the pages).”
In April 1926, Rex gave Stephen, most likely as a 20th birthday present, a book of Shelley's verse. Two years later in May 1928, Rex designed a suit for Stephen who made 'a wonderful impersonation of the poet to Oliver Messel's Byron at the Countess of Birkenhead's charity matinée.'
To learn more about their friendship you can read Stephen’s biography ‘Serious Pleasures’ by Philip Hoare and Anna Thomasson’s biography ‘A Curious Friendship: The Story of a Bluestocking and a Bright Young Thing’.
On 21 December 1926, after delivering prints of Teresa (Baby) Jungman to her personally at Oliver Messel’s studio, Cecil Beaton met Stephen the same evening for the first time at a ball. “It was the coldest night of the year, and he arrived at a dance given by Mrs Benjamin Guinness. Cecil wrote proudly: ‘I enjoyed the party as here I met Stephen Tennant for the first time & I liked him enormously & I felt puffed with pride that he so gushed at me.’ Beaton was ‘already a name’ with Stephen, he said. ‘He’d noticed masses of things I’d done - & seen things in the papers & for years had wanted to know me just as I’d wanted to know him.’”
“They spent the whole of the party getting to know each other. The youthful vanity of these boys was not to be underestimated; it reflected the spirit of their age. After such a thrilling evening, Cecil was ‘very happy & tomorrow would very likely be lovely too, as I am invited to go with Stephen Tennant, Tanis & Meraud to the Circus.’ In the Christmassy atmosphere of late December 1926 the Circus at Olympia was an exciting place to go. Here Stephen ‘rode papiermaché horses… surrounded as usual, by an adoring group of Guinness girls’, wrote Cecil in his published diaries. ‘He wore a black leather coat with a large Elizabethan collar of chinchilla. As he blew kisses left and right, he created an unforgettable sight.’”
“To celebrate Stephen’s birthday, a new photo-session was commissioned from Cecil. Stephen booked in for a Saturday session at the end of July. The results are some of the most stunning images yet produced of young Mr Tennant. Once more against the silver foil, Stephen wore his dark pinstripe suit, a long-collared striped shirt gathered by silk tie, and a jewelled stick pin. Then, in a moment of inspiration, he threw on his black leather mackintosh with a fur collar. The effect was electric. Stephen sits half on a stool, hand on hip, staring straight into the camera. There is make-up - a touch of lip gloss, some vaseline on the eyelids, perhaps - but the effect was not of some painted, effeminate creature. Rather, it is an unworldly alien, and unused to twentieth-century dress codes, who has appeared in front of the lens, an approximation of what a young man should look like. “
Their friendship became one of the most impactful in both of their young lives. To learn more about their friendship you can read Stephen’s biography ‘Serious Pleasures’ by Philip Hoare and Cecil Beaton's Diaries.
The Bright Young People
The Bright Young Things, or Bright Young People, was a nickname given by the tabloid press to a group of Bohemian young aristocrats and socialites in 1920s London. They threw flamboyant fancy dress parties, went on elaborate treasure hunts through nighttime London, and some drank heavily or used drugs — all of which was enthusiastically covered by journalists. They inspired a number of writers, including Nancy Mitford (Highland Fling), Anthony Powell (A Dance to the Music of Time), Henry Green (Party Going) and Evelyn Waugh's 1930 novel Vile Bodies. Cecil Beaton began his career in photography by documenting this set, together with Stephen creating fantasy images, ranging from the tin foil background inspired by Stephen's London bedroom to the famous photos taken at Wilsford Manor where they donned costumes of Georgian shepherds. Stephen was a nucleus for the Bright Young People, inspiring writers and introducing Rex Whistler to Edith Olivier.
On 22 June 1927 at a christening dinner held by Sacheverell Sitwell, Stephen, aged 21, met the poet Siegfried Sassoon. “Sassoon had seen Tennant thirteen days earlier, at a dinner given by Osbert Sitwell, but had not been introduced to this extraordinary, effeminate young man.”
In the following September, Stephen invited Siegfried to come stay at Wilsford Manor, along with the Sitwells, Cecil Beaton, Rex Whistler, the Jungman sisters and a handful of other guests. At the evenings costume lunch: “Sassoon, sensing Tennant’s interest, talked a lot, his host’s eyes seldom off him.”
“During a game of hide and seek, Stephen begged Siegfried to take him for a drive later and came at 3:00 am to Sasson’s room in his motoring clothes, his lips still bright pink with lipstick. They went to Stonehenge, about 12 miles, and stayed out till dawn, Siegfried writing in his diary that Stephen was making “the most passionate avowals and simply intoxicating my senses.” Almost running out of petrol on the way back, they crept in through the garden door before Tennant flitted away, his white shoes bright on the grass. The next morning they drove together to London, Tennant asking Sassoon about his poetry and saying he had never been so happy..." Stephen later confessed that this new friendship with Siegfried left him ‘almost swooning with happiness.’
As the relationship developed, Sassoon describes taking another midnight stroll with Tennant, who wore only a silk dressing gown. Sassoon writes: "I can't control him (or myself) on such occasions." One passage in Stephen’s journal reads: "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."
Over the years during their relationship they travelled through Europe together and even collaborated on three pamphlets for Faber’s Ariel Poems, Stephen supplying illustrations alongside Siegfried’s poems. Stephen wrote of Siegfried:
“I never tire of his face, his wonderful hands and beautiful expressive body… Sometimes his face is lined and ravaged and his eyes are bright and hollowly oriental, his frowning and brooding face is lovely too but best I love his clear still look which comes when we are in the woods - by our river, in pine scented mossy glades, or on hillsides in June sun and winds, then he is most wonderful.”
To learn more about their relationship you can read Stephen’s biography ‘Serious Pleasures’ by Philip Hoare and Siegfried’s biography by Max Egremont.