Cecil Beaton




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, from 1920s flappers to Twiggy, Beaton straddled the twentieth century, recording its heroes and starlets, fashions and tastes.

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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 photographed Princess Elizabeth in her uniform of Honorary Colonel of the Grenadier Guards in 1942, and 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.

Behind the Scenes: Cecil Beaton


It has now been 8 years since I first put on a Cecil Beaton exhibition and I’m absolutely thrilled to finally be able to put on a full show of vintage Cecil Beaton prints. We have found this amazing collection of prints which we are really proud to be exhibiting in this forthcoming exhibition. And I wanted to just spend a few minutes taking you through some of the key pieces in the show, and introducing you to the collection in person.

The exhibition is a complete survey of Beaton’s early work from the mid 1920s through to the end of the Second World War. I wanted to start by showing you some of the earliest works from the show. During the mid 1920s, just after Beaton dropped out of Cambridge University, his earlier subjects, as he was an unknown, were his long-suffering sisters Nancy and Baba Beaton. I’ve always loved these very, very homemade early works, but I’d never dreamt that I’d be able to see vintage prints of these pictures, and in this collection are several vintage, early prints of these ground-breaking early pictures that developed the early style that we now associate with Beaton. You can already see Beaton starting to work with textiles in the background, props, and elaborate costume as well as developing the sort of glittery, gleaming style that we associate not just with Beaton, but with the Bright Young Things. Beaton was friends with lots of familiar names from the period – the Sitwells, for example, Steven Tenant, Rex Whistler, Evelyn Waugh. And this aesthetic, this kind of bright and sparkling aesthetic became associated not just with Beaton, but with this particular group of high society figures, partly because Beaton photographed most of them. One of the absolute gems in the collection is this picture here, which is his sister Nancy as a shooting star. You can see that Beaton is taking this glittery aesthetic to the very maximum: he’s using tinsel, he’s using tinfoil, he’s using plastic to create maximum reflection from the lighting around, and you get this sort of bursting, kaleidoscope of light surrounding his sister.

Another group of pictures in this exhibition which is extremely special are Beaton’s fashion photographs. He was a particularly innovative fashion photographer. In many ways, Beaton was ahead of his time. At the time, fashion photography was a very formal and slow process, and it was a static process. You got very, very posed, studio photographs. In this image for example, you can see that he’s not got a very beautifully appointed studio, and got a model in front of a white background. Here, the models are posing in what looks to be a building site, and it is completely unlike any fashion photograph that I’ve seen from before this period.

One of the other great groups in this exhibition is Beaton’s war photography. Beaton was hired by the Ministry of Information to go out and document the British war effort and the pictures that he took, unlike any other group of pictures from his archive. Beaton was alive to the documentary necessity of the project. He knew that he had to photograph what was happening, but in typical Beaton fashion he found beauty in the strangest and darkest of places. Here, for example, is a photograph of an airman in a wellington bomber in the UK, at one of the RAF barracks. It’s an extremely complicated image, it is of course a great portrait, but it’s also a multi-lead, complex picture with Surrealist references, and it’s a very brave and striking composition. This picture here is another very famous Cecil Beaton picture from the Second World War, and it’s a picture of a blown-up tank in the desert in Northern Africa. Here, Beaton is clearly finding some sculptural beauty in this blown up tank, and its typical of Beaton’s war photography in this manner. As somebody who’s been looking for vintage Cecil Beaton photographs for the last decade, I have often been thwarted in my attempt to find more than a couple of prints every year. It is unheard of to find a collection of this size containing almost all vintage prints. I am absolutely certain that it’s unrivalled in private hands and I’m incredibly excited to introduce it to you at the gallery for this exhibition.