Cecil Beaton's Ashcombe: The Story of a Fifteen-Year Lease is a memoir that's both charming in the telling and the presentation. It's a pity that it is not only out of print but used copies are selling at far beyond what my budget allows, as this is a book I would happily keep in my own collection. If you google Cecil Beaton and look at the images attached to his name you can see some of the gorgeous portraits he took over the course of his long career. In his entry in the wikipedia he's listed as not only a photographer, designer and writer but also as a socialite. After reading Ashcombe it's a label that fits him perfectly.
Ashcombe is a rather idiosyncratic memoir covering the fifteen years he leased Ashcombe House, an 18th century property in Wiltshire that he fell in love with when he first saw it in 1930. He literally called it love at first sight, and it was to become his refuge. It was difficult to get to and quite isolated, it required much attention and renovation but house and tenant could hardly have suited each other better.
"No one can have been more house-proud than I, when first I took possession of Ashcombe. I firmly believed that nobody possessed a more beautiful home, such magnificent furniture and decorations or such wonderful food, that no one gave such entertainment or boasted such delightful company."
Cecil Beaton was only twenty-one when he took over Ashcombe and along with the help of his good friend writer Edith Olivier (who was also instrumental in helping Beaton find and lease the property) he turned it into an amazing country home with elegant gardens that was a draw for artists, writers and poets, an endless string of Beaton's friends. The world he inhabited in 1930 was so drastically different than what the world became so many years later when he wrote this memoir.
"So utterly has the world changed since that summer day, nearly twenty years ago, when I stood for the first time under the brick archway at Ashcombe, and surveyed my future home, that ways of living and of entertaining which then seemed natural today seem almost eccentric.
Ashcombe is a snapshot of a vanished era--the sort of memoir I so thoroughly enjoy and the sort I find myself drawn to quite often lately. The life Beaton led there was idyllic and it suited his artistic sensibilities. He turned a dilapidated structure into a showhouse, however eccentric it might seem now with its Cinderella-like, Baroque interior design. Despite its isolation it was ideally situated and just waiting for the love and care Beaton lavished on it.
"The warm-coloured brick and silver stone-work had a perfect background in the sombre green of the ilex trees. From the summit of the downs, the house seemed to be buried among the trees, but when one looked from its windows into the valley below one realised that it was perched at least six hundred feet above the sea."
It's not just the physical improvements that Beaton made upon the property that made it so unique. He breathed new life into it with his parties and gatherings. He was indeed a socialite, and visiting Ashcombe House must have been a unique experience.
"For many years Ashcombe was used as a setting for non-stop Saturday-to-Monday parties. Each Friday the lawn-mowers provided accompaniment to the preparations inside the house for the ensuing festivities. Hampers were collected from nearby stations, the latest books and American magazines were littered about for slight perusal. The floral arrangements were a major item in the curriculum and took several hours to erect."
Much thought and attention went into everything about this house, and lovingly so. The nearby town became so used to partygoers passing through on their way to Ashcombe that guests didn't even need to ask directions--one glance from villagers could tell where the carload of people were heading and directions were willingly given. Ascombe was even a bit scandalous as guests fresh back from Venice or the South of France would sunbathe in bathing suits or trunks--unheard of at that time--giving rise to gossip that it was a nudist colony. Not all the activities at Ashcombe were so eye-raising, however. There were even amateur theatricals given, and given the fact that Beaton was a designer and his guests were often artists must have been quite an impressive accomplishment.
Beaton didn't spend the entire year at Ashcombe. He spent the winter months in America, and often went to France, Italy, Austria or Hungary in August and September. He was working actively as a photographer at the time and spent much time away on assignments or marketing his work. He would return to Ashcombe exhausted, but the seclusion and beauty of the place was always just what he needed to restore his equilibrium and replenish his energy.
As the years passed and the world marched steadily towards war, life at Ashcombe and the surrounding village changed with the times, too. While the greater part of the book is taken up with happier scenes Beaton writes also of the children who were evacuated to the countryside, of the friends who went to war, and of those who didn't return and of his own war work with the Air Ministry. While the overall tone of the memoir is quite breezy and gossipy, it is also imbued with moments of sadness, particularly as the years of his lease neared the end and it was not renewed for a third time. This is a lovely book and just a touch bittersweet. It's really a love letter of sorts to a very special place that obviously held much meaning in Beaton's life.
If you ever happen across this, do snap it up or borrow it from the library. Ashcombe was recommended by a reader in an online reading group I belong to, and it turned out to be another little gem of the book (wonderfully illustrated as you can see). Simon at Stuck in a Book wrote about it first last February and just recently the book came up in a discussion once again--prompting me to look for a copy. For me it was another bit of social history, very personal and intimate and particular to a time and place and a small group of people. It was unplanned but it complemented nicely Agnes Jekyll's A Little Dinner Before the Play, so a nice companion read. Must search more of these types of books out. Do let me know if you've read any memoirs of a similar sort as I am keen to read more.