AT a recent talk on the Great War in Salisbury Library by Ken Smith, he quoted LP Hartley’s memorable line: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

These words came back to me when I visited two concurrent shows on Cecil Beaton.

Photography is my subject, and I can say with confidence that Beaton was a good photographer, even influencing Angus McBean and David Bailey.

However neither show has much content to interest me: Beaton’s most significant work is not here.

Both exhibitions accomplish what they set out to do.

At Salisbury Museum, Beaton at Home at Ashcombe and Reddish draws on a wide variety of sources to present a dense, layered picture of his social life. It also covers his design and theatre work.

Cecil Beaton at Wilton features only the photographs.

In the main these are reproductions rather than original prints, but these have been significantly enlarged to good effect.

Together they give the impression of constant parties and endless dressing-up; a way of life that now seems to belong to another world, one that is superficial and irrelevant today.

Maybe this does have a modern equivalent: yes, it’s the world of OK! and Hello! magazines.

The partying had to stop in 1939, but if it hadn’t been for the war, Beaton’s legacy would have been meagre.

Sacked by American Vogue for inserting anti-semitic text into a picture caption, he returned home shortly before the war and found a quite different context for his talent.

The fashion photographer with a flair that made him the favourite of the rich and famous now turned his camera on Britain in the Blitz.

Here you find his best work, and an enviable legacy (a few good examples can be viewed online). Ordinary people: soldiers, sailors and blitz victims are accorded the dignity or glamour, even nobility, only before seen in portraits of the great or good. It was a remarkable achievement.

The Wilton show runs until September 15; Salisbury until September 19.

At the other museum in the Close, the Rifles, you can see the results of a joint project led by the National Portrait Gallery.

The aim was to encourage young people to use museum resources intelligently by making original art.

In Wiltshire, artist Henny Burnett worked with students from Bishops Wordsworth’s and Avon Valley College, using two First World War diaries and museum exhibits as source material. The result is an exhibition of ‘postcards home’ made by the students and the artist.

By Martin Urmson

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