Cecil Beaton at War
Cecil Beaton began working for the British Ministry of Information in 1939, shortly after it was formed as the principal body for publicity and propaganda in what was to become the Second World War. It was new territory for Beaton, who by 1939 had established himself as a leading figure in fashion and portrait photography, but it aligned with both his intense patriotism and his growing reputation as the creative ambassador for Great Britain. It remained work of which he was immensely proud for the rest of his life.
Under the auspices of Kenneth Clark, the young Director of the National Gallery who was an advisor to the Ministry, Beaton was sent on various photographic missions both at home and abroad. Between 1939 and 1945 he travelled around Britain, to the Middle East, and to India, Burma and China photographing subjects as diverse as ship production in Newcastle to type-setters in Szechuan. The resulting archive is astonishing.
While alive to the documentary necessity of the projects, which he achieved with customary effortlessness, Beaton’s pictures are intensified through his eye for elegance and style. His haunting image of a bombed out St Paul’s Cathedral sees the famous dome framed by a crumbling, bombed archway. While the work retains Beaton’s need for theatre and beauty, it is not at the expense of objectivity or Realism – instead it draws the viewer in and makes the message more immediate.
Beaton was particularly interested in recording the damage to London caused by the Blitz. In particular he photographed the widespread damage to Wren Churches, including St Paul’s Cathedral, which were published in his 1941 book, History Under Fire.