Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll 1934

Sir Cecil Beaton (1904-80)

Portrait of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, Sir Cecil Beaton
Watercolour and pencil
20th Century
24 x 18 inches, 61 x 45.5 cm
Given by the artist to the sitter Thence by descent
Margaret, Duchess of Argyll was one of the most beautiful and notorious women of the 20th century, whose elegance propelled her to a position of almost unrivalled celebrity in the United States and Britain. She married first the American stockbroker and amateur golfer Charles Sweeney in 1933. Such was her fame that she was immortalized by Cole Porter in his 1934 Broadway musical ‘Anything Goes’ in the song ‘The Top’;

You’re the top; you’re an Arrow collar,
You’re the top; you’re a Coolidge dollar,
You’re the nimble tread of the feet of Fred Astaire,
You’re Mussolini, you’re Mrs. Sweeny…

Margaret later married the Duke of Argyll, and seemed content to settle into a life of aristocratic grandeur. However, her awkward personality began, with age, to outshine her famous beauty. Soon the Duke referred to her as ‘S’ – for Satan – and during their divorce proceedings (until recently the costliest ever) a High Court Judge dubbed her “wholly immoral”.

Margaret Argyll has found little sympathy outside a small and close circle of friends, of whom Beaton was one. Her biographer concluded; ‘She had known everybody, been everywhere, had every material advantage, been bestowed with legendary good looks. Never had so much fortune been used to achieve so little.’[1] Certainly, she possessed a mastery of acerbic comments; “I don''t think anybody has real style or class anymore. Everyone''s gotten old and fat.” And yet, she was in many ways a symptom of the aristocracy’s inability to adapt to the seismic changes in society after the Second World War. She could neither boil an egg nor make her own bed, and was unable to cope with life outside the confines of wealth and class. Whatever her fame or repute, she remains an icon of twentieth century celebrity.

Cecil Beaton is best known as one of the leading photographers of the twentieth century. His society and fashion photographs helped dictate taste and shaped the course of photography. He played a major role in shaping the iconography of Queen Elizabeth II, and was official photographer at the coronation.

Beaton was an acute observer of life, from the tiniest detail through to the subtlest characters. It was these observational skills which, when coupled with new and more portable cameras, allowed him to so brilliantly capture the changes in society after the Second World War. He was as equally talented, however, with the brush as with the camera. His watercolours were generally for fashion and theatre designs, and this example is one of few painted portraits, particularly suited to capturing one of the most elegant – and fashion-conscious – women of the age. It confirms that Beaton, in whatever medium, was a portraitist par excellence.

[1] Charles Castle, The Duchess Who Dared, London 1994
Philip Mould Ltd, 18-19 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LU.Copyright Philip Mould Ltd.