In the context of the era of parties and excess, James Laver is remembered mainly for an extract of comic verse entitled “The Women of 1926” . This witty and insightful summary of, at least, one aspect of the 1920s features prominently in both Marek Kohn’s “Dope Girls” and D.J.Taylor’s’ Bright Youmg People“.The poem has just the right mixture of satirical distance and insider knowledge to simultaneously valorize and deplore its chosen target. It is a tease – but telling and achingly evocative, nonetheless.
“Mother’s advice, and Father’s fears,
Alike are voted—just a bore.
There’s Negro music in our ears,
The world’s one huge dancing floor.
We mean to tread the Primrose Path,
In spite of Mr. Joynson-Hicks.
We’re People of the Aftermath
We’re girls of 1926.
In greedy haste, on pleasure bent,
We have no time to think, or feel
What need is there for sentiment
Now we’ve invented Sex Appeal?
We’ve silken legs and scarlet lips,
We’re young and hungry, wild and free,
Our waists are round about the hips
Our skirts are well above the knee
We’ve boyish busts and Eton crops,
We quiver to the saxophone.
Come, dance before the music stops,
And who can bear to be alone?
Come drink your gin, or sniff your ‘snow’,
Since Youth is brief, and Love has wings,
And time will tarnish, ere we know,
The brightness of the Bright Young Things.”
But James Laver wrote far more than these few lines. In fact, he was a bit of an expert when it came to affectionately sending up the Manners and Mores of the Bright Young People. Apart from the racy 1933 best-seller, Nymph Errant – turned into a musical by Cole Porterm he produced three long verse pieces that attained cult status. A Stitch in Time (1927) Love’s Progress (1929) and Cupid’s Changeling (1933) (collected together as Ladies Mistakes 1933) were three mock-Augustan pastiches chronicling the journey of various young women through the pifalls and perils of the Modern World. Imagine Alexander Pope among the Bright Young People and you get a sense of the mood. Considered quite saucy at the time, they remain an engaging social document and are still entertaining, even though the humour is a little forced. The marvellous illustrations by Thomas Lowinsky make them even more attractive and worth hunting down.
“Love’s Progress” is my favourite. It tells the sad tale of a young Suburbanite, Araminta, and her entanglement in the Artistic circles of Bloomsbury and Chelsea. The description of a Chelsea party and its guests conjures up the world of Olivia Wyndham or Viva King with uncanny accuracy,
The poem continues
“One girl, with more to show, wore even less,
And one young man came in a bathing dress.
Another man (though to describe him thus,
As masculine, is almost libellous)
Had shaved his eyebrows smoother than his chin
And painted more artistic eyebrows in.
One woman wore a short, divided skirt,
A black tie and a very stiff, white shirt
As if to show herself a thing apart,
And tell the world she carried in her heart
All Messalina’s wild desires, or worse,
And everything of Sappho – but her verse.
To you Fair Reader, sated as you are
With gin on tap in your own private bar,
This party would have offered nothing new,
Nor had to her, were Araminta you.
But she, poor girl, cut off from knowledge quite
Had passed her youth in grim, Suburban night;
And that instinctive preference for the best
That you by Nature, and at birth, possessed,
She knew not of, nor could she e’er have guessed
That these were what the gossip-writer calls
“All Chelsea’s smartest Intellectuals”.”
and so forth. There is more acute social observation in the hundred or so light-hearted pages that make up the trilogy than in any of the novels of the era, with the possible exception of Evelyn Waugh. More examples can be found at
and for more on the illustrator see
James Laver (1899-1975), who described himself as an “iconographer”,was nothing if not diverse in his interests. As a a curator and consultant at the V&A, he practically invented modern fashion history, bringing a psychological and what might be termed a “Cultural Studies” approach to the area. He was just about the first person to deem theatre design and stage sets worthy of scholarly interest and C20th Design History is deeply indebted to his pioneering efforts. He was a gifted translator of verse, an influential teacher and a useful journalist. He also contributed to the first forays into fashion and design programmes on television (both pre-war and in the 1950s). As a sideline he was an expert on the Occult and knew Aleister Crowley during the The Great Beast’s final days.
He was drawn into the world of Bohemia and all things theatrical through his marriage to the actress Veronica Turleigh.The couple lived in Piccadilly and then Chelsea. Always something of an outsider, his father was a printer and he was a “scholarship boy” at Oxford, he appears to have enjoyed slipping between different social worlds. In his autobiography “Museum Piece” he recalls, with some relish, “To my colleagues at South Kensington I had become a cigar-smoking, Savoy-supping, enviable but slightly disreputable character, hobnobbing with chorus girls and hanging round stage doors. To Gertrude Lawrence and her friends I was something ‘in a museum’, engaged in mysterious and apparently useless activities quite outside their comprehension; a character out of The Old Curiosity Shop, hardly fit to be let out alone.Perhaps unconsciously, I played up to both these delusions.”
Laver’s classic textbook (still used by students)
He was an observer rather than a participator. He did know some of the leading Bright Young People (including Brenda Dean Paul) but he was never of that circle. However, through his novels, his satirical verse and his collaborations with the likes of Cole Porter, Oliver Messel, C.B.Cochran, Gertrude Lawrence and,even, Anna May Wong he found himself at the centre of Fashionable Modernity and to no little extent helped shape the way in which that world – in all its modes and manifestations – were perceived by the wider society.He was no moralist or political analyst but, as he himself put it, an iconographer – and often a very perceptive and playful one.