Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea;
And love is a thing that can never go wrong,
And I am Marie of Roumania.
– “Comment”, Dorothy Parker
Despite privilege and an outward show of frivolity, the life of Stephen Tennant was hardly a glorious cycle of song, so marked was it by illness (physical in the first half, mental in the second). And the literary activities by which he hoped to make his mark amounted to little more than a medley of extemporanea. Love, which came to him in the unlikely form of the significantly older war poet Siegfried Sassoon, went wrong, then simply went, and never returned. But Tennant was, for one night at least, at a London fancy-dress party in 1927 which marked the apex of the Bright Young People, Marie of Roumania.
Tennant was born in his parents’ faux Jacobean manor, Wilsford, in 1906. He grew up devoted to his mother (which is not just an obituary-style euphemism in this case) but even more so to his nanny. Despite his delicate health (tuberculosis), he had the means and encouragement to develop his talents for drawing and writing alongside his boundless curiosity and stupendously camp persona (“not keen on games” as one teacher noted).
The result is that by the time he was 21 he had published a book of poetry, exhibited his drawings in London, seen Caruso in New York and Sarah Bernhardt in Paris, proposed marriage (to be politely but pragmatically declined) and met most of the circle who would become known as the Bright Young Things, Rex Whistler and Cecil Beaton being the two most enduring associations.
In the late 1920s, Tennant was giddy with the attention he received in society columns, his flamboyant personality, powdered face and gold-dusted hair announcing the arrival of a new type of celebrity. “He makes the rest of the world seem squalid”, remarked Beaton, though he was often embarrassed to be seen with the painted sprite (fortunately Tennant managed to charm and disarm most hostile strangers). Tennant’s narcissism was so pure and open and unabashed that it belongs almost to a different category. “You were very beautiful this evening Stephen,” reads one diary entry.
But adulthood weighed heavily, and Tennant resented it. Part Peter Pan, part Tinker Bell, at just 21 he was already bemoaning “the Hell of being grown up”, and like Brian Howard, never managed to fulfil his early potential. Tennant succumbed all too readily to distraction despite preaching to others the importance of hard work in attaining success (“How would he know?” commented Beaton in his diary).
Matching his extemporal skills was his compulsive habit of writing and drawing in the margins of books, florid digressions crowding out the banal realities of life. But no longer young, no longer so bright, Tennant was himself becoming marginalised. Depression cast a lengthening shadow over his life, and after his affair with Sassoon he never again managed to sustain a relationship. A telling anecdote has him regretting giving a present to a friend because “I’m not sure if she loves it as intensely as I do”. The same could be claimed of himself; Tennant was unable to give himself away because no-one could love him as much as he loved himself.
Tennant adjusted poorly to life after the Second World War, which had killed Rex Whistler and seen his beloved Wilsford commandeered and damaged by the Red Cross. He set about redecorating (his interiors, like his clothes, deserve detailed attention at a later date) and spent less and less time away from home.
References to Tennant often claim that he spent most of his life in bed. While this is a gross exaggeration, he was reclusive in his later years, once even turning Princess Margaret away when she came to visit. The novelist V.S. Naipaul, who for 15 years lived in a cottage a stone’s throw from the main house, never actually met his landlord. In any case Tennant’s name was largely forgotten in the wider world, and those who knew of him often shared Caroline Blackwood’s assessment of him as “just an eccentric gay, who didn’t really do anything”.
At the eleventh hour, however, there was a flurry of renewed interest. Tennant’s illustrated book Leaves from a Missionary’s Notebook, an arch Firbankian blend of prurience and exoticism, was reprinted, and London galleries showed his works. In his later years he even received guests again; pilgrims to this improbable remnant of the mad, camp ‘20s included David Hockney and Christopher Isherwood as well as Kenneth Anger, whose projected film about Tennant went sadly unrealised. One of the last visitors was writer Philip Hoare whose book Serious Pleasures would posthumously introduce Tennant to a greater public than ever before.
Despite Tennant’s persistent ill health, Beaton had once predicted “he will be the last of us to go,” and so he was, dying on this day in 1987.