Soon after the First World War ended in 1918, London became a nightlife hub populated by bohemian young aristocrats, socialites and glamorous party-dwellers, known colloquially as the ‘Bright Young Things’. Described by Evelyn Waugh in his 1930 novel Vile Bodies as ‘cosmopolitan, sympathetic to the arts, well-mannered, above all ornamental even in rather bizarre ways’, one photographer known for documenting this hedonistic scene was Cecil Beaton, whose archive has been scoured for a newly-launched exhibition: Cecil Beaton’s Bright Young Things, opening today at London’s National Portrait Gallery.

The comprehensive showing features more than 170 photographs, self-portraits, prints and paintings, and spotlights everyone from socialites and costume designers to Lady Diana. It’s also a glimpse into the fascinating life of Beaton himself, whose fashion photography earned him a Vogue contract before he later began documenting the daily lives of Britons during the Second World War.

In this context, the ‘Bright Young Things’ offer an interesting snapshot into a post-war period defined by dazzle and prosperity, as well as a visual archive of two incredibly opulent decades: the 1920s and 1930s. Crystal-embellished dresses and overblown couture aside, the exhibition also collates images of Beaton’s close friends and collaborators, unveiling the treasured archive of one of history’s most influential photographers.

Cecil Beaton’s Bright Young Things is at the National Portrait Gallery, London from 12th March to 7th June 2020.

Cecil Beaton by Paul Tanqueray, 1937. National Portrait Gallery, London. © Estate of Paul Tanqueray.