It may be argued that Stephen Tennant was an ultimate definition of modernity, certainly in the way in which the 1920s are defined today. Jacob Epstein once described him as “the most beautiful person, male or female, of his generation”. Ahead of his time, with a streamlined, articulated appearance – a living Charles Sykes sculpture. His androgynous beauty and wild antics elevated him to become the poster boy of a generation.
Stephen James Napier Tennant, born 1906, into privilege and wealth was the son of the 1st Baron Glenconnor and the former Pamela Wyndham, herself a society beauty and muse, and painted by Sargent in 1897. Future relations would include Stella Tennant and Detmar Blow. A beautiful child, Stephen led a happy and gilded childhood doted on by an adoring Mother, who dressed him as a girl until the age of 8, existing within what would become a baroque backdrop to a life he would shortly lead.
The party boy supreme, Tennant is regarded as The “Brightest” of the bright young people, a pack of aristocratic bohemians, famous for exotic parties and a complete flaunting of the rules. The New Romantics of their generation – stylised and so, so beautiful, a youth movement long before the term existed. Privileged backgrounds allowed them to live luxuriously in an ultimate pursuit of hedonism and glamorous excess – attending parties with ever competitive costume themes, manic motor car treasure chases around London in hot pursuit of hidden treasure, just par-for-the-course for the ultimate party people.
As the figurehead of this cult-collective, Tennant led his troops of decadence in wildly outrageous costume, from Queens of Europe to 18th Century shepherds; to conquer rival battalions with their committed intent to sartorial battle. As he angled and posed, his outrageous antics momentously gained him attention, making him the darling of gossip columnists and society hostesses alike – fashioned by the press into the ‘It’ Boy Du Jour.
Whether making that all important entrance ‘in an electric brougham wearing a football jersey and earrings’ (so headlined a 1927 edition of the Daily Express) or staging elaborate tableaux in the grounds of Wilsford, his country estate; Stephen provided a significant inspiration to his contemporaries. A muse to many including Cecil Beaton, Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh. Waugh based numerous characters on him, most famously Lord Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited. His intoxicating originality led also to a heady love affair with the war poet Siegfried Sasson which, after some years, Stephen abruptly ended due allegedly to Sasson arriving unannounced and catching Stephen without his eternally applied make up. That for Tennant was the deal breaker!
But as the fairground of delightful debauchery reached ever dizzying heights and Europe hurtled towards WW2, the inevitable occurred and the ‘scene’ began to deteriorate, and finally implode.
And so eventually Stephen, disenchanted with what was becoming of the ‘real’ world, simply created his own. Retreating ever more to the seclusion of Wilsford, where he assembled an ultimate fantasy realm of shells and marble; Tennant created an exquisite cocoon of memories allowing himself to forever relive his days of glory. With letters from Virginia Wolfe, who once described him as her ‘Bird of Paradise’, sitting stagnantly on the hall table as if they had only just arrived. Wilsford became a temple of the past and Stephen took to his bed, spending the majority of his time there surrounded by shimmering silver walls.
This reclusive lifestyle seemed, however, only to enhance his mystique, elevating his notoriety gained in the 20s, to fulfil his earlier prophesising words uttered to sculptor Maurice lambert whilst posing for him: ‘Am I a legend? I suppose I am!. Later, this self-promoted elevation to living urban legend drew a new generation of admirers to Wilsford, to pay homage. Stephen held court in his palace of reminisce wearing his signature Worth perfume and layers of makeup as David Bailey, David Hockney and Ossie Clark revelled in stories of the people he had known. Philip Hoare was another of those pilgrims and his biography, Serious Pleasures, is the definitive document of Stephen’s life.
The cover of Hoare’s biography features possibly the most iconic image of Stephen, it perfectly summarizes that sparkling moment in history, between the wars, when possibility and adventure for the new briefly reigned. Tennant appears photographed by Beaton in a leather flying Jacket, copied from one worn by his brother during the First World War, with the essential addition of a chinchilla collar – of course! Here, Tennant is a pristine pilot of futuristic classism with gold dust in his hair and Vaseline on his eye lids; beauty and rebellion coyly staring back at the viewer.
It is Stephen’s glittered modernity that makes his legend both enduring and endearing, defining a transcending legacy which echoes loudly with the world of today. This is due as much to his pursuit of the party lifestyle, as to his knowledge of the power of creative vision as a means of survival; and as that brave originality masquerades in a ‘football jersey & earrings’ that legacy seems to be that touch more iconic. A legend indeed!
By Louis Romanus
(See the author of this article, Mr.Romanus posing as Mr.Tennant in THIS photoshoot)
Originally published in Lujon Magazine issue n.1