Stephen Tennant’s letters, thought Stephen Spender, were “the essence of English retention—objects for private consumption, deluxe samizdats.” Tennant also wrote poems, painted pictures, and worked on a novel, never to be completed. His most significant published work was his 1949 foreword to his friend Willa Cather’s essay collection, commended by Cather scholars and still in print today.
By the time of its reclusive occupant’s death in 1987, the faux-Elizabethan country manor Wilsford, in Wiltshire near Stonehenge, overflowed with a dusty mishmash of valuable antiques, ephemeral gewgaws, and exotic objets d’art. Outside, ivy shrouded the gables and moss thickened on the roof tiles. In the overgrown gardens stood a myriad of neglected statuary, marble urns, stone columns, and rococo fountains. To disperse it all, Sotheby’s hosted hundreds of potential bidders, over four days, at what they described as an “English eccentric’s dream house.” Said eccentric was Stephen Tennant, who was born at Wilsford in 1906 and died there, aged eighty-one. According to his devoted housekeeper and nurse, Sylvia Blandford, he’d have turned in his grave at the spectacle of his possessions being pawed over and auctioned off piece by piece. But he had left no will. Death was not, perhaps, a notion permitted within Tennant’s elaborate fantasy world, into which he had retreated ever deeper as the decades passed.
Like a fairy-tale character magically granted every conceivable blessing, only to discover those blessings carry a curse, the Honorary Stephen James Napier Tennant began life arrayed with sublime advantage. His father, Sir Edward Tennant, came from a family who owed their vast wealth to a Scottish ancestor’s invention and patenting of bleach powder in 1799. Edward’s blue-blooded wife, Pamela Wyndham, was a socialite who courted the leading artists and writers of the day. Pamela doted on Stephen, her youngest child of five, and encouraged him in his creative pursuits. As he was turning fifteen, she even arranged for his first art exhibition, at a respected London gallery. All the biggest national newspapers covered the event, offering fawning praise of the artist and his work. It must have been intoxicating indeed. And yet, as any former child star will attest, nothing warps one’s sense of self like youthful celebrity.
If Pamela took a keen interest in her precocious adolescent’s artistic promise, she paid little attention to his reckless behavior, such as his habit of offering local soldiers a cigarette in exchange for a kiss. Once, when an encounter went further than a kiss, he was apprehended and brought home by a policeman, who assumed the boy would face consequences. He was mistaken. Sir Edward had recently died, and it never occurred to Pamela that Steenie, as he was known, should be anything but his uninhibited self. Tennant’s gift for high camp, cultivated as least partly as camouflage for shyness, was always displayed at heroic levels. On one visit to New York, he disembarked the ship in full makeup, his hair in marcel waves, with a bunch of orchids in his hand. “Pin ‘em on!” jeered a customs officer, to which Tennant responded: “Oh, have you got a pin? What a wonderful welcome … you kind, kind creature.” John Waters, who in 2015 named Philip Hoare’s excellent biography of Tennant as one of his ten favorite books, put it thusly: “Aubrey Beardsley, Ronald Firbank, Denton Welch—believe me, Stephen Tennant made them all seem butch.”
It was in the late twenties, when Tennant was around twenty-one, that his life peaked. Among the so-called Bright Young People, whose decadence and penchant for fancy dress kept gossip columnists in brisk trade, he shone the brightest. “His appearance alone,” the Daily Express rhapsodized, “is enough to make you catch your breath.” He inspired Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh characters, was sculpted by Jacob Epstein, wrote style columns, and stole the show in the group photographs that helped launch Cecil Beaton’s century-defining career.
Soon after Beaton was introduced to Tennant in late 1926, he accepted an invitation to Tennant’s home, Wilsford, for the weekend. “My whole visit from beginning to end,” the twenty-three-year-old Beaton recorded in his diary, “was like being at the most perfect play. Here Stephen was saying glorious things the entire time—funny, trite, vital, importantly exact things.” Tennant’s influence was formative, believes Beaton’s biographer, Hugo Vickers. “While Stephen was far from short of ideas, he lacked the stamina to carry them out himself. Thus he was often the inspiration of an idea and Cecil its executor.”
Tennant’s lack of stamina, both mental and physical, was to be the prevailing theme of his existence. His fragility haunted and doomed his one grand passionate affair: with Siegfried Sassoon, the revered poet and war hero turned pacifist. They first met through friends in the summer of 1927, when Tennant was twenty-one and Sassoon forty-one. Tennant’s initial impression of Sassoon, he later reminisced, was of “some charming wild animal—one never felt he was really tame (or tameable).” An instantly smitten Sassoon wondered if this fey youth, so beautiful and narcissistic, was capable of love. Yet fall madly in love Tennant did. Soon, he was addressing Sassoon as “My heart’s best beloved” in letters, and the poet was composing sonnets to him. During their relationship, Sassoon assumed the role of caretaker to his delicate, pampered lover—who, having grown up a sickly child and suffered from tuberculosis since his late teens, periodically took to his bed for weeks. Sassoon happily kept close vigil. “I ask for nothing,” he wrote in April 1929, when Tennant was recovering from a lung operation, “but to be near him always.”
To Sassoon’s torment, Tennant began asking for solitude during his bouts of invalidism. In reaction to this rejection, the poet moved into a house near Wilsford and took to lurking around the grounds, before going home to drink and weep. His hopes that they might, after all, have a future were raised when he was allowed in to see Tennant on a few occasions. And after the patient was diagnosed with neurasthenia and admitted to a psychiatric hospital, Sassoon visited him there, too. But the final break, when it occurred, was brutal. In May 1933, Sassoon received a letter from Tennant’s doctor. “He says you upset him and make him feel ill,” Dr. T. A. Ross wrote, “and that he cannot see you again.” Sassoon was stunned. By the end of the year, he had proposed to a woman, Hester Gatty. She was Tennant’s age, twenty-seven, and said to resemble him. The marriage was not a success.
From then on, Tennant romanticized his time with Sassoon, whom no other lover would eclipse in his self-mythology. “It is quite paradoxical,” Philip Hoare observes, “that having so summarily dismissed Siegfried, Stephen should seemingly spend the rest of his life regretting the action—or, at least, continually recalling the years he spent with Sassoon as an idyllic lost past.” Rose-tinted memories, abstractions, were preferable to a reality in which his idealizations might be threatened. “I am one of those sad people,” Tennant wrote, “who would like to be loved without being known—to be a wonderful memory, a legend, a glory…” His arch manners, ultra-glamorous primping, and brazen flouting of masculine taboos all kept the world at arm’s length. As Beaton reflected, “so many of Stephen’s eccentricities and poses were a part of his illness.” Alas, these self-preservation strategies were fallible, and Tennant relapsed into physical illness and depression many more times. In the late forties and again in the fifties, he underwent several rounds of ECT under general anesthetic.
The same phobia of being seen thwarted Tennant’s literary ambitions. As a young man, he wrote at least one novel, which he chose not to publish. And he spent many decades on his projected magnum opus, a Marseilles-inspired novel to be titled “Lascar,” conceived in 1938 and never to be completed. He revised, rewrote, and reconfigured the story of, in his words, “crude desires, lusts, fidelities, and treacheries.” He began other novels, and engaged in such procrastinatory activities as illustrations and designing covers, only to return to it. In 1941 Cyril Connolly’s magazine, Horizon, published a “Lascar” cover featuring one of Tennant’s own paintings. In Connolly’s opinion, he was “an interesting and pathetic phenomenon, a great writer who can’t write.” E. M. Forster, meanwhile, read sections and urged Tennant to stick with it. Various other author friends offered kind words and advice, including Elizabeth Bowen, Rosamond Lehmann, and Willa Cather, whose work he idolized. (He wasn’t very interested in male writers.) The American novelist, an unlikely but close friend, said she had high hopes for “Lascar.” In the eighth decade of Tennant’s life, and of the century, by which point he rarely ventured beyond the perimeter of Wilsford, he was still, supposedly, working on it.
Tennant’s slide into inanition was gradual but inexorable. In early middle age, he still took trips abroad and socialized in between periods of seclusion. Then, from around age fifty, he spent ever more time at home. In his bedroom, strewn with his favorite books, paintings, old photographs, diaries, and mementos, he could luxuriate in remembrance and forget he was no longer that ravishing young aesthete, so full of promise. “I used to be beautiful like you, can you see that?” he asked Marie Helvin, who dropped by one summer with the interior designer Nicky Haslam. “I used to be so beautiful… It’s a thing we can never stop being, can we?”
Callers were received as Tennant reclined on his unmade bed. He only got up in June, he’d explain, to see the roses. In truth, he sometimes went shopping: a lifelong occupation was buying furniture and curios for the house and gardens; the more recherché, the better. A 1966 letter from his brother Christopher, who looked after his finances, suggested mildly: “I think the first thing to find out about the seal pool is how much it would cost to maintain and look after the seals.”
The correspondence Tennant produced from his sequestration was copious, and arrived scented and illustrated. He also continued to paint, and occasionally exhibited. In 1976, at age seventy, he had a joint show at a Mayfair gallery with the surrealist artist Cecil Collins. The Connoisseur magazine said of Tennant’s work: “Everything conspires to create an air of mystery and romance… There is an air of fin de siècle, a time past and desirable, but now irrevocably out of reach.” Tennant, unwilling to burst his own carefully fashioned bubble of nostalgia and illusion, declined to attend the exhibition’s private view. “I don’t want to see any friends or neighbors ever again,” he told Beaton a couple of years later. “I am a total sad recluse alas. I’m a complete failure in every way.” The photographer, who had recently suffered a stroke, was shaken. “It is the end of an epoch!” he noted sadly in his diary.
Tennant’s closest neighbor in his final years was V. S. Naipaul, who lived with his wife, Patricia Hale, in a cottage on Wilsford’s grounds between 1971 and 1986. The two men never met, though Tennant would send his housekeeper over with little gifts of poems and pictures. And thanks to the stories Naipaul heard from staff and visitors, Tennant became a central presence in his autobiographical novel The Enigma of Arrival. In this melancholic introspection on the idea of home, the writer/narrator diagnoses his hidden landlord with acedia, a profound spiritual dejection. He astutely speculates on the cause: “Perhaps he had stalled in what might be considered an earlier state of perfection,” that is, his youthful identity in all its glory. “But that perfection … had turned to morbidity, acedia, a death of the soul.” He also muses on how the Tennant character’s extreme privilege, rooted in the dying British Empire, is the mirror image of his own impoverished beginnings in the colonial Caribbean. “I felt I could understand his malaise; I saw it as the other side of my own… Privilege lay between us. But I had an intimation that it worked against him.”
Tennant never read The Enigma of Arrival, which was published in March 1987, less than three weeks after his death. He would have appreciated it, given his discerning literary taste and desire for immortality. As he inquired of a friend, happily and rhetorically, a few years earlier: “Am I a legend? I suppose I am. How exciting!” He remains so, a century on from his first taste of the limelight as a teenage artist. In the publicity for “Cecil Beaton’s Bright Young Things” (an exhibition previously due to run this spring at London’s National Portrait Gallery), and the accompanying book (out now in the UK and the U.S.), Tennant upstages his peers just as he did in the twenties. Beaton’s photographs capture that portentous, perfect moment upon which, in a tragic sense, Tennant’s entire life would pivot. He appears in them as he always wished to be seen: otherworldly, untouchable in his beauty, and eerily, eternally modern.
Emma Garman has written about books and culture for Lapham’s Quarterly Roundtable, Longreads, Newsweek, The Daily Beast, Salon, The Awl, Words without Borders, and other publications. She was the first writer of the Daily’s Feminize Your Canon column.