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Beddington, Jack (1893-1959)


Main image of Beddington, Jack (1893-1959)

Jack Beddington (born John Lewis Cohen) was a Cabaret-era impresario, a dandy who used his publicity post at Shell to stretch corporate sponsorship into previously off-limits areas of avant-garde art and film.

After ten years in Shanghai, he arrived at Shell UK in 1928 with a reputation as a bon viveur. His appointment owed everything to family connections, but Shell was to provide an unexpectedly convivial home, and. the philanthropic tradition created by the 'gentlemanly capitalism' of the company's founder Marcus Samuel suited Beddington's frustrated artistic instincts. Over the coming decades artists, writers and film-makers found Beddington a willing patron: he famously paid cash for new work, regardless of whether Shell needed it or not.

His first act was to scrap 30,000 of Shell's existing signs. Following in the footsteps of Frank Pick at the London Underground, Beddington commissioned many important modernist painters and designers such as Graham Sutherland, Edward McKnight Kauffer and Hans Schleger to radically redesign the corporation's image. The 'critical success of their posters was crowned by many successful gallery shows. These brought Beddington to the attention of an impressed Kenneth Clark, then director of the National Gallery, who became a life-long friend.

Beddington enjoyed similar kinship with John Betjeman (who fondly referred to him as 'Beddioleman') sponsoring the creation of Betjeman's popular county guides and, when the poet was at a low ebb, securing him a paid position in Shell's publicity department. They worked together in films during the Second World War and in the 1950s Beddington was to be decisive in establishing Betjeman's television career. Peter Quennell and Evelyn Waugh were other important writers who benefited from Beddington's largesse.

Shell also made a significant contribution to film during the inter-war years. Drawing inspiration from his Balliol mentor, Sir Stephen Tallents, Beddington recruited Edgar Anstey from the wreckage of the Empire Marketing Board. Under Anstey's guidance the Shell Film Unit sponsored interesting cinematic projects such as Paul Rotha's Contact (1933) and Len Lye's The Birth of a Robot (1935).

This success eventually saw Beddington replace Clark as head of film at the Ministry of Information in 1940. Aside from overseeing the considerable achievements of the government's own Crown Film Unit, Beddington showed unusual flair in his dealings with commercial film companies. Most notably, he smoothed the path of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger productions such as One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942) and A Canterbury Tale (1944). Although he was predictably unable to win government support for The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), his determination to commission a left-field treatment of Anglo-US relations bore spectacular fruit with the release of A Matter of Life and Death (1946).

After the war, Beddington morphed into a kind of Charles Saatchi prototype, becoming Deputy Chairman of the advertising agency Colman, Prentis & Varley. The firm's work for the Conservative Party became the source of serious political controversy but this did not prevent Beddington from taking up roles with the Royal College of Art, the Royal Society of Arts and the Society for Industrial Artists.

Since his death in 1959, some artists and film-makers, such as Dallas Bower and Sidney Gilliat, have been critical of Beddington, characterising him as an unprincipled opportunist, profiteer and self-publicist. However, the majority view of the astonishing range of artistic activity that Beddington sponsored was best expressed by Cyril Connolly, who described him as a 'Modern Medici'.

Scott Anthony

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