29 June 2010

Beaton, et al.

Rex Whistler's own- Ashcombe

Some stories never get written. Perhaps that is why so many of us crowd the internet with our own stories-what are we leaving behind? Pouring through books, shelving them, having them settle inexorably in our minds. The authors have written their stories, what do we take from them? Cecil Beaton's story of his beloved country home Ashcombe is one book that recurs in my mind's eye. What did the bon vivant say about...? This? That?

His stories are always about the people in his life-characters-real characters: Rex Whistler, Edith Olivier- two that inhabit the story & seem to form the spine of the Ashecombe narrative. His constants-as it were.

Conversation-piece at The Day House
1937, by Rex Whistler 
Edith Oliver perched on her daybed- though the other Players are unidentified- they are likely Beaton, seated with Olivier, Ottoline Morrell, opposite, and perhaps the painter himself.
The ever knowledgeable Toby Worthington tells me- they are Lord David Cecil, Olivier, Ottoline Morrell and Rex Whistler- (where was Beaton? behind the camera, perhaps.) 

Edith Olivier- charming mayoress of Wilton, Rex Whistler and Beaton took off on a joy ride while the two men were staying with Edith at her Dayehouse in Wiltshire-only to find themselves amongst the pages that would be Cecil Beaton's beautiful tale of Ashcombe- The Story of a Fifteen Year Lease.

Olivier strolling about Ashecombe just after Beaton arrived.

Though a stream of players would enter: Morrells, Sitwells, Cecils, Johns, and exit-an Olivier and a Whistler-and their friendship with Beaton were Ashcombe's brightest stars. Beaton dedicates the book- "to the memory of EDITH OLIVIER who brought me to Wiltshire:

from the 1949 Ashecombe The Story of A Fifteen-Year Lease

The Garden from the Terrace 
by Cecil Beaton

"Of the neighbors on whom I grew to rely more and more, Edith Olivier was perhaps always the most cherished...& so largely responsible for my having blossomed into a happy adult life." Her close proximity deprived Cecil from her company as his weekend guest- "I would refrain from asking other guests, for selfishly I wanted to keep to myself the benefit of her company. Edith was always at her greatest advantage when a deux."

As the pages of Ashecombe receded in my mind, one day-this appeared.

 Chatam Hall
by Laura

A delicately painted notecard from a dear friend. Who was responsible for the magical garden watercolour? It struck me- a Cecil Beaton watercolour of Ashecombe? Was this another?
Not so.
The artist is the vibrant daughter of the note's sender.
Where was Ashecombe?  To the shelves with other of my Beaton books- & off it came.
Ah ha! Yes. There was the same distinctly atmospheric handling of a scene. Just enough detail to make it memorable. Both watercolour scenes of, as Beaton put it so well, where he blossomed into happy adult life. For Beaton, Ashecombe, for Laura-Chatam Hall. Her continued rite of passage from there to college and now a graduate-returning to Chatam Hall this autumn to start a career. I marvel at this daughter of my childhood friend and her siblings-as they travel through so many passages- marriage, motherhood and the loss we must all suffer inevitably as adults.

Beaton in the Circus room,posing in an 18th-century-style jacket, with surreal touches,
for a fete champetre, hosted at his country house, Ashcombe.

Rex Whistler stood by Beaton as constant friend within the many pages of Ashecombe. The friendship of the two- Rex and Edith- was a part of the story as well. Rex "made Edith's Dayehouse his second home. He often told me that he was happier there than anywhere else." He confided in Cecil his fears that he could not survive the sudden loss of Edith-were something happen to her. An Ashcombe Sketching Competition between the two friends  was judged by Olivier. "Rex reflected an extraordinary atmosphere of serenity and quite continuum. It was a sweet Auburn sense of life that he liked and always seemed to create."

The eighteenth century was his inspiration" and his work said Beaton, "contributed much to the taste of the twentieth century." What might be a labour for other artists-Rex "flicked off expertly in a few twists of his pen."

Whistler's distinctive style

Parties and tableau were so much a part of the Ashcombe set, characters floating in and out, moving off stage and with the onset of the war, Ashcombe's idylls waned. Rex enlisted, Edith threw herself into the war efforts in Wilton. She chronicled her experiences beautifully in Night Thoughts of A Country Landlady & presided as Mayor of Wilton.

Edith Olivier as Mayor of Wilton

Cecil's return from his travels during the war found Edith much the same, somehow though her dark black hair, such a part of her gipsy persona, had turned pure white. Beaton feared Edith had become a staid spinster.  After a few  minutes of talk, he saw no other marked changes. His fears that their cherished Rex would not return from the war were realized when news came-Rex had been killed in Normandy. "I have never ceased to mourn his death... I am continually wishing for his delightful company, his views on character and people, and his suggestions on a thousand details of taste and decoration."

It is often the case as we see our own stories go off course- characters exit suddenly without saying goodbye- Our loss palatable. We cherish the illusion that we might go on for ever. (from Beaton Ashecombe)

"Love , marriage, death, the passing of a house-these things are the milestones of life and they point a finger to the clock. The expiration of my lease was as a milestone which indicated that a lump of my life had passed in a timeless flash." It can not go on forever.

all Quotations are from ASHCOMBE- Cecil Beaton
ASHCOMBE, all house images-unless noted
STYLE TRADITIONS RECREATING PERIOD INTERIORS, by Stephen Calloway and Stephen Jones-Whistler image of Daye House.


  1. The figures in the Conversation Piece at Daye House
    are from left to right:
    Edith Olivier, Lord David Cecil, Ottoline Morrel, and
    Rex Whistler.

  2. What a bevy of beauty and intrigue, remind me to ask to be seated next to you at the next dinner party.
    Beaton is the one I want to meet in heaven.

  3. I have not read Ashcombe but I must find it. It must have been referred to in books I've read in the past but for some reason it has never impinged on my consciousness. Thank you.

  4. I have yet to read the Ashcombe book but I feel connected to it after this post. I concur with your assessment about Cecil. His books are always full of characters.

  5. ummmmm...the saddest line...so true...thank you...to go back for just a moment...
    'The expiration of my lease was as a milestone which indicated that a lump of my life had passed in a timeless flash'

  6. And now Ashcombe will be on my reading list too. Thank you little augury for another beautiful post.

    Miss W

  7. How interesting, I did not know at all about Edith Oliver before reading this - thank you!


  8. Well, I'd never heard of Edith Olivier I confess. Her gypsy soul and the mayoralty - what a delicious clash of culture. This post is terribly poignant about the passing of time, leases, friends.. Who could not be moved that the lovely Rex Whistler bought it in World War II?

  9. With Ashcombe out of print you may like to know that we hold a few paperback copies of the last printing of Ashcombe, signed by Hugo Vickers, at our store in Tisbury, Wiltshire UK - full contact details at www.cecilbeatonfabrics.com

  10. I look forward to reading Ashcombe! All new to me and you've made it come alive.

  11. Roger, thank you! I hope several readers call. thanks for stopping here. The books is a beauty.

    Patricia, I would love to have dinner with you both.

    Good to actually introduce a book or Character to my esteemed readers. You will be charmed, as for me Beaton always does.

  12. Edith Olivier's book mention is a softly written charmer. It tells the story of WWII-I had not considered indepth. I am more and more amazed at the strength the Brits displayed during this period. It should be noted in today's world. pgt

  13. Ashcombe is one of my favorite Beaton's and it is sadly out print and ghastly expensive when one can find it. You should read Edith Olivier's Country Moods and Tenses, my favorite of her's.

  14. Lucinda- they is a new printing of Ashcombe- last year I think. I have the Country Moods and Tenses. pgt

  15. Love that little book, it is one of the best. And you know that Madonna lives there now.

  16. Bart- it really is, as we remember it makes me want to go back and read it again! The Ashcombe house went to Mr. Madonna -Guy Ritchie in the divorce. Who can blame him? pgt

  17. A lovely post about my much loved Olivier - I have just requested Ashcombe at the Bodleian, and hope to be enjoying it soon!

    1. I've read her Country Moods and Tenses and another book -the name escapes me about the war efforts in her village. Such an interesting life! Ashcombe is a treat. pgt



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