The life and times of a sharp‑tongued but hugely creative portrait and fashion photographer
All about great 20th-century fashion photographer Cecil Beaton
CECIL Beaton was one of the great portrait and fashion photographers of the 20th
century. Attracted to elegance, glamour and style, his creative talents extended to costume and set design on stage and screen, as well as painting and illustration. His influence has extended to many other major photographers, including David Bailey and John Swannell.
What was his background?
Beaton was born in Hampstead, London, in 1904, the eldest son of a wealthy timber merchant. He began taking photographs as a child, encouraged into the activity by his nanny, and developed his talents further at Cambridge University. Beaton had photographs published by
Vogue while still a student. He left before finishing his course and began working for Vogue in 1926. Beaton loved beauty and glamour, and his early subjects included the wealthy and bohemian ‘bright young things’ of the 1930s.
How did his photographic career develop from there?
He worked as a staff photographer at different times for Vogue, Vanity Fair and Harper’s Bazaar. The majority of his portraits featured major international figures in the arts, particularly actors, artists, dancers and models. He’s also well-known for his royal portraits. His first was a portrait of Queen Elizabeth, later the Queen Mother, in 1939; others included Queen Elizabeth II’s official coronation portrait in 1953.
What was he like as a person?
Art historian and museum curator Sir Roy Strong, a friend of Beaton’s, described him as “vain, ambitious and sometimes vitriolic”. Beaton’s unexpurgated diaries, published in 2003, revealed a snobbish and opinionated personality. Comments about his sitters, in his diaries and elsewhere, were often venomous. He described actress Katharine Hepburn as “a raddled, rash-ridden, freckled, burnt, mottled, bleached and wizened piece of decaying matter”; while Elizabeth Taylor was “a thick great revolving mass of femininity in its rawest.”
How did he approach photographing World War II?
He was prolific, shooting over 7,000 images between 1940-45 – mostly a mixture of posed portraits and images of bomb damage. His most famous war image showed three-year-old Blitz victim Eileen Dunne, sitting in a hospital bed with a bandage around her head. It was shown on the cover of Life magazine in September 1940 and helped to influence American public opinion about joining the war.
What film and theatre work did he do?
He was an accomplished set and costume designer. He won Oscars for his costume design on the films Gigi (1958) and My Fair Lady (1964) as well as four Tony Awards for his work on Broadway productions.
What did he do in his later years?
Knighted in 1972, Beaton had a stroke two years later that left him paralysed on his right side and greatly limited his ability to work. To ensure his income, he auctioned most of his archive in 1976. He died in 1980.
Why is Beaton in the news?
A new book, Love, Cecil: A Journey
with Cecil Beaton, by Lisa Immordino Vreeland, has just been published. It’s a primarily visual journey through Beaton’s prolific creative life, illustrated with his photographs, contact sheets, drawings and scrapbooks and complemented with his personal quotes. It’s published by Abrams, price £40.
Clockwise from top left New York, 1930s/40s; Barbara Streisand, 1969; Royal Indian Naval Station, Calcutta, 1944; Cecil Beaton by George Hoyningen-Heune.