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Tallulah Bankhead, 1930s

Cecil Beaton

Inscribed 'Bankhead' in unknown hand and stamped with photographer's and Sotheby's Cecil Beaton studio ink stamps on reverse
Silver gelatin print, printed 1930s
8 1/2 x 8 1/2 inches
Provenance: the collection of Paul F. Walter


This portrait depicts the American actress Tallulah Bankhead. Bankhead travelled to the UK in 1923 to appear in C B Cochran’s production of The Dancers and stayed in Britain for eight years. She was a true celebrity of the era, not only appearing in twenty-four plays during these eight years, but also well-known in her own right for her wit as well as for her wild, hedonistic exploits.  

Bankhead and Beaton moved in the same bohemian circles in London during the 1920s, and she appears in a number of his portraits. He described the actress as ‘a tornado, a whirlwind, a marathon.’

This particular portrait anticipates Beaton’s later move towards Surrealism, and sees Bankhead pose, recumbent, with her eyes closed, reflecting the movement’s emphasis on sleep and dreams. Her bare skin is here juxtaposed with the dark stone of the tiles, which are equally dark in tone to her painted lips, at the centre of the composition. It is Beaton’s use of these bold contrasts that creates such a dynamic and engaging image.

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