Obituary: Nancy, Lady Smiley
Wednesday 09 June 1999
Nancy's father, Ernest Beaton, was a timber merchant, living in Hampstead, north London. Her mother, Esther Sisson, came from Temple Sowerby, in Cumberland. She met Mr Beaton on a visit to her sister, Jessie, who had married a Bolivian and become a rather exotic character in the family. These two sisters attended an amateur dramatic performance of A Bunch of Violets, in which Ernest was playing the male lead, and shortly afterwards, in March 1903, Ernest and Etty were married. There were four in the family, Cecil, the eldest (born the following year), Reggie (born in 1905), and then Nancy (born 1909) and Baba (three years her junior).
The family were prosperous, yet but for Cecil there is no reason why they should have led other than respectably conventional lives in what Truman Capote described, a touch waspishly, as "a cocoon of middle-class respectability". But Cecil was fired by a love of glamour, society and above all the stage, and his inherent talent was matched by fierce ambition. His youthful eyes alighted on a photograph of Lily Elsie (the Merry Widow) lying on his mother's bed, and he was captured by the possibilities of emulating such images through his own lens. To this end Nancy and Baba were obliged to serve as his models, striking exhausting and exaggerated poses for hours on end in the cause of his art. Cecil adored them. "I see them," he wrote in 1930,
with their eyes still half-asleep, in dressing-gowns at breakfast, and in their night-gowns, with faces covered with cold cream before going to bed at night. I call up and see Nancy hanging over the staircase three flights above with her hair flopping over her face, and Baba I see leaning over a basin having her hair washed, or like a Turkish lady with her head wrapped in a towel, and I become a plague to them with my inopportune
citement at wanting to get out, there and then, a pencil and notebook and Kodak camera.
Cecil was disappointed to find that his mother was not a society lady, while over impressed when his aunt Jessie adorned herself for some relatively minor court function. He strove to correct the situation. All witnesses concur that he could never make much of his poor old father, whose finances gradually crumbled as the timber business declined. But his mother was soon entertaining and being photographed by the fashionable photographers of the day and, in Nancy and Baba, he found malleable commodities.
Those were the days of the Midnight Matinees, of pageants, fancy dress galas, the post-First World War burgeoning of a new society, the rise of "the Bright Young Things", debutantes wearing make-up and being sketched as impossibly willowy figures in the pages of Vogue magazine. Cecil's skill with the camera and the pencil gave him a unique position in the promotion of this era. He posed young ladies of fashion in Arcadian settings and sold them to Vogue.
Cecil detected in Nancy's looks the beauty of a china Dresden shepherdess and as such he often depicted her. The two sisters he sent like a pair of Cinderellas to the ball. That there were two of them, invariably identically clad, was the more striking and it was not long before they were well- known figures in the social whirl of London in the Twenties. Given that Cecil's finest stage moment was his creation of the costumes for My Fair Lady, it is impossible not to see him as a kind of Henry Higgins figure, or Svengali, in the lives of his sisters.
Not everything ran smoothly. Suitably adorned by Cecil, Nancy was presented at court and made her curtsey to King George V in the summer of 1928, but later that season she was the unwitting victim of a society fracas when she was taken to the Countess of Ellesmere's ball at Bridgewater House in a group led by Stephen Tennant and David Plunket-Greene. The hostess had been troubled by a gatecrasher the year before and was stirring for trouble. The young men did not have invitations and the whole party, including the innocent Nancy, were thrown out. This was an upsetting occasion, made the more so by Lady Ellesmere breaking the unwritten code that ladies did not speak to the press. The pros and cons of the affair dominated the pages of newspapers for weeks afterwards.
Cecil did not help matters by suggesting that his sisters were descendants of Lady Mary Beaton, in whose guise he often dressed Baba. Later that season an irate wing commander wrote to the Tatler, pointing out that this was not so.
However, soon afterwards, King George II of Greece, then in exile in London, asked Nancy to dance at a ball and the Beaton family relaxed. In 1930 Cecil included Nancy in his The Book of Beauty, serene in a white cellophane dress and bedecked in roses. She was almost the last survivor of the beauties in that book, outlived only by the Jungman sisters.
Nancy married Sir Hugh Smiley, a delightful Grenadier Guards officer and baronet, in a lavish (again Beaton co-ordinated) wedding at St Margaret's, Westminster, in January 1933. Constance Spry arranged chalk-white flowers and Nancy looked, as Cecil intended, like the Snow Queen. The marriage was a success and lasted over 57 years. The Smileys lived in Hampshire, where Sir Hugh was High Sheriff and Vice-Lieutenant, and served as honorary secretary of the Jane Austen Society without, he liked to jest, having troubled himself to read the author's novels.
In her youth Nancy too had gifts as a draughtsman. She drew well and clearly shared many of her brother's talents. But, marrying into the Smiley family, with a somewhat formidable and long-lived Champion de Crespigny mother-in-law, she veered wholly towards the conventional and away from the artistic, which was a pity. It is impossible not to feel that she was made to feel insecure in this world, and thus, at times, could appear formidable and disapproving. Yet she was always correct, conventionally and smartly dressed and had fine, old-fashioned manners. What she sought and achieved was a life of serene family happiness and she took pride and delight in her son, John, a Grenadier Guards colonel, his children and the generation after.
Nancy Smiley remained active until almost the last day of her long life. Only a few days ago, she was helping the publisher David Burnett identify mysterious figures in Beaton photographs for a new Dovecote Press edition of Cecil Beaton's Ashcombe, to be published this summer. And she was thrilled that her niece's husband Sir William Gladstone had been elevated to the Order of the Garter, to be installed at Windsor, as it turns out, three days after her funeral.
Nancy Elizabeth Louise Hardy Beaton: born London 30 September 1909; married 1933 Sir Hugh Smiley Bt (died 1990; one son); died 6 June 1999.
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