Image: Brijesh Patel
December 09 2010
I am thinking of starting a scrapbook. Of course it is one of those New Year’s resolutions that I have little intention of initiating, let alone continuing. Yet in my researches for a book I am writing about the great costume balls of the 20th century, some of the most charming source material I have come across is in scrapbooks that have been preserved by their owners for, in some cases, more than 60 years. And in turn I suppose that the scrapbooks that I have been fortunate enough to look at have their roots in the Victorian mania for collage and découpage.
Of course I like the idea primarily because it is a resolutely old-fashioned way of storing data. One of the corollaries of the digital age is the increasingly paperless nature of life. So, poring over scrapbooks showing such people as artist and theatre designer corpulent Christian Bérard and couturier Jacques Fath dressed up as Henry VIII and Charles IX (in a leopardskin doublet) for a ball given by Etienne de Beaumont in 1949, has a doubly (or do I mean doublet?) historical effect. The people, who looked so happy and so impressive in their costumes on that night so long ago, have ceased to exist and, in the main, ceased to be remembered; and the method of their preservation is itself an endangered art form.
I say art form in that, although a minor art, at last the scrapbook seems to be getting recognised for the creative work it involves. Assouline has recently published a coffee-table book of such weight and dimensions that it could be used as the foundations for a medium-sized family house. It reproduces the leaves of Cecil Beaton’s scrapbooks. The results are strangely beguiling, a patchwork of images brought together sometimes as an aide-mémoire, sometimes as a visual narrative. Given that they were probably never intended for public exhibition, they remain intimate and personal, offering another insight into one of the most talented, creative and industrious Britons of the 20th century.