Acid Drops from Mrs. Pat.

by Cecil Beaton bromide print on white card mount 1938 © Cecil Beaton Studio Archive, Sotheby’s London

Source: Mrs Patrick Campbell – National Portrait Gallery

I came across an excerpt in Theatre Arts in 1961 from photographer Cecil Beaton’s diaries during the period when he photographed Mrs. Patrick Campbell in this pose in 1938 (full image at the National Portrait Gallery). Living in New York City under reduced—but still defiantly grand—means, the legendary stage actress insisted on paying Beaton thirty dollars for his work, which she commended glowingly: “Oh, that shadow under the jaw! You’re a genius to put in that shadow. And no one has taken such a photograph of gloved hands. Those gloves are alive. Look at the depth between the thumb and first finger. That’s what everyone wants to have!”

A few other bon mots from Beaton’s reminiscences:

Mrs. Pat on Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre: “They have no reverence, those boys. They speak the lines as if they had written them themselves. You can’t recite the Song of David spontaneously. You must recite it as David. Mr. Welles’ Brutus is like an obstetrician who very seriously visits a lady in order to placate her nerves.”

On standards of beauty: “In my day, beauties were poetic-looking. They wore long, pre-Raphaelite tea gowns. They moved and spoke very slowly, giving the impression that they had just been possessed.”

On posture and movement: “In moments of anxiety, you must never throw your head from side to side. It is foolish and restless. Raise the head and clasp it still; no, not with your hands, with your spirit! Now you’re learning all my tricks!”

Beaton took all her grande dame exhortations, at that time already redolent of a bygone age, in stride: “As a teacher she is excellent. Her criticisms are cannily apt, and one relishes her cruelty.”

And, for a guide to her vocal cadence, consult her performance in the 1934 film One More River: “They’re sure to do something stuffy!”

Author: Ryan M. Prendergast

Ph.D. Candidate @ the University of Illinois. Theater, opera, music, media, art, history, detritus. I smile, of course, and go on drinking tea.

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