Ballet’s Cyril W. Beaumont – the original rock ‘n’ roller

Billy Fury? James Dean? No - a drawing of a young rebel from 1916

Billy Fury? James Dean?

The quiff, dangling cigarette, the eyebrows, the attitude – at first sight, this is Liverpool rock-and-roller Billy Fury, Hollywood actor James Dean, Elvis Presley, or one of the other idols of rock and cinema in the 1950s and 1960s. In fact, the sketch is of a bookseller, Cyril William Beaumont, from Drawing magazine in 1916. But ‘Mr Beaumont’ – as he was known in the ballet world – was no ordinary bookseller. The article – possibly by George Ellwood, the editor – describes the bookshop and its ‘presiding genius’:

The shop is a refreshing change in the wilderness of antique literature, and its window stamps it as a place to purchase not only books and prints but ideas and inspirations.

It describes Beaumont’s enthusiasm for Russian ballet in particular and how he intended to publish a book about ‘Diaghilev’s ballerina’ Tamara Karsavina, which ‘he is both writing and illustrating himself’. This opens up the possibility that the sketch here is a self-portrait. Although the British Library lists 100 titles with Beaumont as author or translator, I can see no sign of this book, though Beaumont did publish Valerian Svetlov’s Thamar Karsavina in 1922. He was also interested in Japanese art from the Ukiyo-ye school.

Beaumont made a large donation to the V&A of wooden figures of ballerinas that he commissioned for sale in his shop in the 1920s, costume and set designs, prints, sculptures, ballet shoes and his own oil paintings of ballet scenes. The National Art Library has 179 items related to Beaumont.

Beaumont is regarded by none other than Clement Crisp, dance critic of the Financial Times, as one of the most influential people in the history of ballet. The Cecchetti ballet website carries an article Crisp wrote in 1992, 16 years after Beaumont’s death:

And his shop in the Charing Cross Road [number 75] was his shrine. In the 1940s and ’50s, when I used to go there to buy and happily browse, it was like an Aladdin’s cave for a balletomane. Here one sensed something of Beaumont’s range, as a publisher, bookseller, writer and most significantly since this was the theme of all his work, as educator. Ballet has known many great teachers – codifiers of technique, inspirers of dancers, figures to whom performers owed their careers. A list of them will go from Auguste Vestris, Blasis and Bournonville to Cecchetti and Vaganova. Cyril Beaumont’s name must be placed among them, for he it was who educated dancers and choreographers and the general public through his researches, his publications, his commentaries as a critic and observer. Without The Complete Book of Ballets and its appendices, ballet’s past would have remained a closed door to many thousands of writers and critics, so that taste and understanding would have been poorer. Even today, after 55 years, it remains an essential reference work.

So, next time you watch Fury, Cliff Richard, Dean or Presley, remember a Charing Cross bookseller had the look 40 years before them during the First World War!

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