Bluffer’s Notes

The life and times of a sharp‑tongued but hugely cre­ative por­trait and fash­ion pho­tog­ra­pher

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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.

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