For never having completed his novel, Stephen Tennant did all right, landing himself an exhibit in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library this spring. The display is aptly named “Works in Progress” and features pages from Tennant’s uncompleted novel, “Lascar,” as well as samplings of Tennant’s artwork, notes and correspondence. Much of Tennant’s work was auctioned off after his death in 1987, and the Beinecke has massed an impressive hodgepodge of his unfinished legacy. Until May 24, you can scout out these pieces on the library’s second floor and spend a few minutes trying to navigate Tennant’s head.
The exhibit’s presentation is slightly haphazard: “Works in Progress” is contained in two sets of display cases on opposite sides of the library, with little explanation or obvious organization. The available information booklets are filled with blank pages to make an artistic statement, which I struggled to fully appreciate while I was trying to orient myself. With a second exhibit, “Under the Covers,” sandwiched between the two parts of Tennant’s work, it’s hard to glean a sense of continuity. The display would benefit from consolidation and additional commentary.
Still, it’s worth taking a few minutes to get a general impression of Tennant’s work. Make sure to look for his handwritten correspondence — Tennant swapped ideas with his friends throughout his career, and even befriended and kept in touch with contemporary author Willa Cather. Seek out Tennant’s exchanges with photographer and designer Sir Cecil Beaton. “Cecil my Treasure Trove,” one letter begins in large, curly blue script before it erupts into a page of overlapping blue and green handwriting complete with hearts doodled up the right margin. A determined visitor could attempt to parse through it, but I recommend instead taking three steps back and appreciating the letter as a piece of art in itself: evidence of Tennant’s free and zany thought process, exploding beyond the bounds of his medium.
I’m less sure what to make of Lascar. The world may not have gotten the chance to know him in print, but Tennant seems to treat his character like an old friend. On his draft pages, Tennant’s handwriting wraps around meticulous and fond sketches of the unpublished hero. Although the Beinecke provides no information about the novel’s content, a visitor can attempt to piece together a bit of his story from the illustrations of a buff sailor with a serious face, mysterious and pitiful. Two of Tennant’s outlines for the novel are on display, and when you observe the drink stains and cross-outs, it’s not difficult to picture Tennant poring anxiously over his plans.
For the art fiend seeking a thorough and instructive detour, “Works in Progress” isn’t it. But for those feeling a bit overwhelmed four weeks into the semester, the exhibit is a worthy study break that might even help keep things in perspective. Stephen Tennant’s work reminds us that there is beauty even in the incomplete. Sometimes, it’s not about the finished product behind the display case, but the human being who made it happen, who planned and stressed and second-guessed. “Works in Progress” respects Tennant not only for the quality of his creation, but also for the force of his fantasy. Although Lascar never made it into circulation, he has found safe harbor on the Beinecke’s shelves.
And who knows — maybe there’s hope for our half-finished projects and quiet dreams, too.