Cecil Beaton

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Cecil Beaton (1904-1980) had a brilliant aesthetic eye, which combined with his theatrical persona, ruthless ambition and addiction to social advancement kept him in work for over six decades. From young socialites to Andy Warhol and the Rolling Stones, 1920s flappers to Twiggy, Beaton straddled the twentieth century, recording its heroes and starlets, fashions and tastes.

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Works

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Lady Eleanor Smith, 1927 by Cecil Beaton

Lady Eleanor Smith with Lilies, 1927

Cecil Beaton

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Nancy and Baba Beaton, 1924 by Cecil Beaton

Nancy and Baba Beaton, 1924

Cecil Beaton

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Lady Loughborough Under a Bell Jar, 1927 by Cecil Beaton

Lady Loughborough Under a Bell Jar, 1927

Cecil Beaton

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Anna May Wong, 1930 by Cecil Beaton

Anna May Wong, 1930

Cecil Beaton

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Lady Pamela Smith, 1927 by Cecil Beaton

Lady Pamela Smith, 1927

Cecil Beaton

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Mrs Beaton, c. 1925 by Cecil Beaton

Mrs Beaton, c. 1925

Cecil Beaton

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Edith Sitwell, 1926 by Cecil Beaton

Edith Sitwell, 1926

Cecil Beaton

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Zita and Teresa Jungman, 1927 by Cecil Beaton

Zita and Teresa Jungman, 1927

Cecil Beaton

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Anne Armstrong-Jones, 1928 by Cecil Beaton

Anne Armstrong-Jones, 1928

Cecil Beaton

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Marianna Van Rensselaer In Charles James Hat, 1930 by Cecil Beaton

Marianna Van Rensselaer In Charles James Hat, 1930

Cecil Beaton

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Dame Edith Sitwell At Tea, 1930 by Cecil Beaton

Dame Edith Sitwell At Tea, 1930

Cecil Beaton

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Georgia Sitwell, Renishaw, 1930 by Cecil Beaton

Georgia Sitwell, Renishaw, 1930

Cecil Beaton

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Gertrude Lawrence, 1930 by Cecil Beaton

Gertrude Lawrence, 1930

Cecil Beaton

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Talullah Bankhead, 1930s by Cecil Beaton

Talullah Bankhead, 1930s

Cecil Beaton

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Lady Pembroke, 1930s Cecil Beaton

Lady Pembroke, 1930s

Cecil Beaton

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Gary Cooper, 1931 by Cecil Beaton

Gary Cooper, 1931

Cecil Beaton

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Johnny Weissmuller, 1932 by Cecil Beaton

Johnny Weissmuller, 1932

Cecil Beaton

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Merle Oberon, 1934 by Cecil Beaton

Merle Oberon, 1934

Cecil Beaton

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Merle Oberon as Antonita, 1934 by Cecil Beaton

Merle Oberon as Antonita, 1934

Cecil Beaton

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Lady Jersey, 1935 by Cecil Beaton

Lady Jersey, 1935

Cecil Beaton

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Models wearing Schiaparelli Desk Suit, ‘Vogue’, 1936 by Cecil Beaton

Models wearing Schiaparelli Desk Suit, ‘Vogue’, 1936

Cecil Beaton

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Schiaparelli Model, Paris, c.1936 by Cecil Beaton

Schiaparelli Model, Paris, c.1936

Cecil Beaton

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Mrs Mona Williams, 1936 by Cecil Beaton

Mrs Mona Williams, 1936

Cecil Beaton

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Mary Oakes and Mary Gosgrave for ‘Vogue’, 1936

Cecil Beaton

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Vicomtesse De Noailles At The Ruins Of The Paris Exposition, 1938 by Cecil Beaton

Vicomtesse De Noailles At The Ruins Of The Paris Exposition, 1938

Cecil Beaton

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Jean Patchett Against Cutout Backdrop, For ‘Vogue’, 1949 by Cecil Beaton

Jean Patchett Against Cutout Backdrop, For ‘Vogue’, 1949

Cecil Beaton

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Carmen Dell’Orefice With Cutout Backdrop, For ‘Vogue’, 1949 by Cecil Beaton

Carmen Dell’Orefice With Cutout Backdrop, For ‘Vogue’, 1949

Cecil Beaton

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Jean Patchett, For ‘Vogue’, 1949 by Cecil Beaton

Jean Patchett, For ‘Vogue’, 1949

Cecil Beaton

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Guests At Carlos De Bestegui’s Ball, 1951 by Cecil Beaton

Guests At Carlos De Bestegui’s Ball, 1951

Cecil Beaton

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Nancy James Modelling One Of Her Husband’s Creations, 1955 by Cecil Beaton

Nancy James Modelling One Of Her Husband’s Creations, 1955

Cecil Beaton

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Corinne Griffith, 1930 by Cecil Beaton

Corinne Griffith, 1930

Cecil Beaton

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The Countess of Pembroke, c. 1935 by Cecil Beaton

The Countess of Pembroke, c. 1935

Cecil Beaton

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Fashion for 'Vogue', New York, 1935 by Cecil Beaton

Fashion for ‘Vogue’, New York, 1935

Cecil Beaton

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Margot Asquith, Lady Oxford, after Henry van der Weyde, 1927 by Cecil Beaton

Margot Asquith, Lady Oxford, after Henry van der Weyde, 1927

Cecil Beaton

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Mrs Daisy Fellowes, c.1930s by Cecil Beaton

Mrs Daisy Fellowes, c.1930s

Cecil Beaton

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Karen Morely, 1932 by Cecil Beaton

Karen Morely, 1932

Cecil Beaton

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Lady Diana Duff Cooper for 'Vogue', 1937 by Cecil Beaton

Lady Diana Duff Cooper for ‘Vogue’, 1937

Cecil Beaton

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Lady Edwina Mountbatten, 1927 by Cecil Beaton

Lady Edwina Mountbatten, 1927

Cecil Beaton

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Meraud Guinness, 1930s by Cecil Beaton

Meraud Guinness, 1930s

Cecil Beaton

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Elsa Schiaparelli, 1936 by Cecil Beaton

Elsa Schiaparelli, 1936

Cecil Beaton

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Ruth Ford, Paris, 1936 by Cecil Beaton

Ruth Ford, Paris, 1936

Cecil Beaton

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Louise, Comtesse Palfy, circa 1938 by Cecil Beaton

Louise, Comtesse Palfy, circa 1938

Cecil Beaton

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Mariannna Van Rensselar In Charles James Hat, 1930 by Cecil Beaton

Mariannna Van Rensselar In Charles James Hat, 1930

Cecil Beaton

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Talullah Bankhead, 1930 by Cecil Beaton

Talullah Bankhead, 1930

Cecil Beaton

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Carole Lombard, 1931 by Cecil Beaton

Carole Lombard, 1931

Cecil Beaton

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Merle Oberon, 1930s by Cecil Beaton

Merle Oberon, 1930s

Cecil Beaton

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Gertrude Lawrence, 1930 by Cecil Beaton

Gertrude Lawrence, 1930

Cecil Beaton

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Constance Bennett, c.1930s by Cecil Beaton

Constance Bennett, c.1930s

Cecil Beaton

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Drape Dress By Mme. Gress, c.1930s by Cecil Beaton

Drape Dress By Mme. Gress, c.1930s

Cecil Beaton

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Greta Garbo, 1946 by Cecil Beaton

Greta Garbo, 1946

Cecil Beaton

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Gertrude Stein And Alice B. Toklas Discover A New Painter Named Atlan, c.1930s by Cecil Beaton

Gertrude Stein And Alice B. Toklas Discover A New Painter Named Atlan, c.1930s

Cecil Beaton

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Queen Elizabeth photographed in 1940

H.M. Queen Elizabeth, 1940

Cecil Beaton

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Portrait of Christian Bérard, 1930s

Cecil Beaton

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Dorien Leigh Modelling A Suit Amidst Unpacked Clothing, For 'Vogue', 1946 by Cecil Beaton

Dorien Leigh Modelling A Suit Amidst Unpacked Clothing, For ‘Vogue’, 1946

Cecil Beaton

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Pre-Bombing Fashion Sitting, c.1940s by Cecil Beaton

Pre-Bombing Fashion Sitting, c.1940s

Cecil Beaton

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Queen Elizabeth II with Prince Andrew and Prince Edward, May 1964 by Cecil Beaton

Queen Elizabeth II with Prince Andrew and Prince Edward, May 1964

Cecil Beaton

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Abdullah Bin Husayn, Emir of Transjordania, 1942 by Cecil Beaton

Abdullah Bin Husayn, Emir of Transjordania, 1942

Cecil Beaton

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The Church at Tobruk, Libya, 1942 by Cecil Beaton

The Church at Tobruk, Libya, 1942

Cecil Beaton

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Queen Fawziah of Iran, 1942 by Cecil Beaton

Queen Fawziah of Iran, 1942

Cecil Beaton

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Eighth Army Tank Crew before the Battle of El Alamein, Egypt, 1941 by Cecil Beaton

Eighth Army Tank Crew before the Battle of El Alamein, Egypt, 1941

Cecil Beaton

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Members of the Long-Range Desert Group, Siwa Oasis, Western Desert, Egypt, 1942 by Cecil Beaton

Members of the Long-Range Desert Group, Siwa Oasis, Western Desert, Egypt, 1942

Cecil Beaton

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A Member of Y-Patrol of the Long-Range Desert Group, Siwa Oasis, Western Desert, Egypt, 1942 by Cecil Beaton

A Member of Y-Patrol of the Long-Range Desert Group, Siwa Oasis, Western Desert, Egypt, 1942

Cecil Beaton

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Acting Flight Lieutenant Thomas ‘Ginger’ Neil, no. 249 Squadron, R.A.F. North Weald, 1940 by Cecil Beaton

Acting Flight Lieutenant Thomas ‘Ginger’ Neil, no. 249 Squadron, R.A.F. North Weald, 1940

Cecil Beaton

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Shell-Shattered Ceiling, Fire Station, Tobruk, Libya, 1942 by Cecil Beaton

Shell-Shattered Ceiling, Fire Station, Tobruk, Libya, 1942

Cecil Beaton

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A Member of Y-Patrol of the Long-Range Desert Group, Siwa Oasis, Western Desert, Egypt, 1942 by Cecil Beaton

A Member of Y-Patrol of the Long-Range Desert Group, Siwa Oasis, Western Desert, Egypt, 1942

Cecil Beaton

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Acting Flight Lieutenant Thomas 'Ginger' Neil, no. 249 Squadron, R.A.F. North Weald, 1940 by Cecil Beaton

Acting Flight Lieutenant Thomas ‘Ginger’ Neil, no. 249 Squadron, R.A.F. North Weald, 1940

Cecil Beaton

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Portrait of a Child Injured in the Blitz, Queen Charlotte's Hospital, London, 1940 by Cecil Beaton

Portrait of a Child Injured in the Blitz, Queen Charlotte’s Hospital, London, 1940

Cecil Beaton

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Sailors Among Hammocks on the Mess Deck, H.M.S. Alcantara, en Route to Sierra Leone, 1942 by Cecil Beaton

Sailors Among Hammocks on the Mess Deck, H.M.S. Alcantara, en Route to Sierra Leone, 1942

Cecil Beaton

Early Years

Cecil Beaton was born in Hampstead, London, on 14 January 1904, into the family of a wealthy merchant. He was educated at Harrow School where he developed a passion for both photography and social advancement. So, though he came from an “unpretentious middle-class family”, and was neither academic nor sporting, Beaton found ways to distinguish himself. This was in large part due to ‘Eggie’ Hine, the influential art master. He treated Beaton as his favourite and encouraged him to aspire to become an exhibitor at the Royal Academy. However, Beaton showed more immediate success in performance, twice winning the Lady Bourchier Reading Prize and invariably taking the female lead in the plays produced by the dramatic society of his house.

While at Cambridge, Beaton joined the Amateur Dramatic Club and the Marlowe Society, both of which had a high profile at the time, regularly drawing audiences from London and receiving reviews in the national dailies. Having engineered a central position within these groups, he gained a reputation for performances in female roles and, of more lasting significance, for his set and costume designs. Throughout his time at Cambridge, and on his return to London, he did all he could to ensure publicity for himself and for his family. He attended parties and joined his mother on charity committees, took and sat for photographs, and worked hard to be noticed by press and patrons. His artistic and social development were simultaneous and inseparable. Beaton went to great lengths to remake the world in the image of his ideal. Presenting himself as an “aesthete”, he explored his identity through a series of increasingly public creative activities. So, he came to establish himself as a photographer, an artist and illustrator, and a designer of sets, costumes and domestic interiors; and also as a writer and an amateur actor.

Placing himself at the centre of fashionable society in the 1920s, Beaton became a prominent member of the ‘Bright Young People’, and photographed a generation of glitzy young socialites, heiresses and artists who gravitated around the figures Osbert and Edith Sitwell and Stephen Tennant. Throughout the decade, though, Beaton’s most frequent sitters were his two sisters, Nancy and Barbara, known as ‘Baba’. The sisters proved useful props for the young photographer, as he experimented with backdrops, materials and photographic techniques.

In November 1927, a year after meeting Sitwell and Tennant, Beaton held his first exhibition of photographs, drawings and theatrical designs at the Cooling Galleries, Bond Street. The range of sitters on display demonstrated how far he had come both socially and artistically, stars of the stage and of the season appearing with equal prominence. However haphazard and homespun his raw materials, Beaton had honed his theatrical instinct into something highly sophisticated, so was able to provide a perfect balance of setting and sitter.

Success Abroad and Royal Commission

Beaton’s career as a fashion photographer grew naturally out of his work as a society portraitist, and flourished under the patronage of Vogue, first in London and Paris and, by 1929, New York. In the following years, Condé Nast’s apartment would host Beaton’s photographic sittings for Lee Miller and Marion Morehouse, among others. His association with Vogue provided him with the foundation to make an impressively swift entrée into American society. It was Nast who tore Beaton away from his beloved Kodak 3A, insisting on the adoption of a professional 8 x 10 inch plate camera. A new camera and new continent afforded him a fresh start, and he adopted new settings and props, and experimented with new formats.

The effect that America had on Beaton’s life and art revealed itself more certainly on his second visit to the country in November 1929. His main achievement on that occasion would be to photograph film stars in Hollywood for Vanity Fair, Vogue’s sister magazine. Working away from his familiar studio and its resources, and with sitters who habitually faced the lens, Beaton adopted new settings and props, and experimented with new formats. His portraits from this period, and through the 1930s, reveal an increasing reliance on close-ups of the face, often strongly modelled by contrasting light and shade, and also the increasing incorporation of floral motifs. These tropes give the images immediacy and freshness, and may even express the photographer’s attempts to respond more directly to the people in front of him. Yet, on closer inspection, they do not quite retain the natural quality that they first suggest. Beaton’s aesthetic remained highly artful if not so brazenly artificial, and made frequent nods towards Surrealism.

The success Beaton achieved in the 1930s reached its height when he was summoned to Buckingham Palace in 1939 to photograph Queen Elizabeth. The event was a great success in itself, with praise in the press for the photographs, but also the starting point for Beaton to become the Royal photographer of choice. It was he who was chosen to record her coronation in 1953.

War Work and Later Life

In 1940 Beaton was appointed as an official photographer for the Ministry of Information. Specially selected by Sir Kenneth Clark to inject the visual record with aesthetic style and substance, he received assignments that he may never otherwise have considered, first on the home front and then across the world, from the Mediterranean and the Middle East (1942) to India and China (1943-44).

The portraits that he took at the time in themselves extended his range, beyond the glamorous and the grand to children and old men whom Beaton portrayed with clarity and sensitivity. In September 1940, Life carried Beaton’s portrait of three-year-old Blitz victim Eileen Dunne on its front cover. The urgency of war allowed Beaton fewer opportunities to prepare to stage a photograph, but his instinct for drama helped him discover and capture coups de théâtre out in the field. Having travelled widely for a decade and having made reportage his own, he was now quick to select a memorable motif, as in the shell-shattered ceiling of a fire station or the remains of tanks on a battlefield. Ever the opportunist, he also used the bombed buildings of the City of London as a backdrop for a fashion shoot, so creating images as startling and surreal as those he once took pains to create in the studio.

Throughout the war, Beaton remained highly industrious, photographing for Vogue as well as the Ministry, and designing for both stage and screen. His gradual development as a designer for stage and screen took off in a big way at the end of the war on both sides of the Atlantic. His contributions to the film versions of the musicals, Gigi (1958) and My Fair Lady (1964), by Lerner and Loewe, gained him Oscars and made him a household name. The films also gave him new muses in the shape of Leslie Caron and Audrey Hepburn. Beaton continued to work for Vogue throughout the fifties and the sixties, working on his last sitting for British Vogue in 1973.

Cecil Beaton died at Reddish House, Broad Chalk, Wiltshire, on 18 January 1980.

Related

Notes, News, Press and Exhibitions

Press

The Financial Times: Cecil Beaton at Huxley-Parlour Gallery

Video

Watch: Exhibition Tour of ‘Cecil Beaton’

Press

The Guardian: ‘Stay for lunch!’ Cecil Beaton’s sublime portraits at Huxley-Parlour

Exhibitions

Cecil Beaton

News

Vintage Cecil Beaton prints on loan to National Portrait Gallery, London

News

National Portrait Gallery announces major Cecil Beaton Exhibition

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