Town & Country (UK) - - CONTENTS —WINTER 2017 -

A new book and film re­veal the ad­ven­tures of the leg­endary English aes­thete Ce­cil Beaton

Ce­cil Beaton. Op­po­site: his pho­to­graph of Au­drey Hep­burn from the April 1964 is­sue of Harper’s Bazaar

As a new book and film shine a light on Ce­cil Beaton, Ca­tri­ona Gray looks back on the life and loves of a man whose tal­ent for cre­at­ing beau­ti­ful sur­faces be­lied his hid­den depths

If you visit the Old Li­brary of St John’s College, Cam­bridge, a cathe­dral-like hall heavy with the smell of the leather-bound vol­umes that line the Gothic book­cases, you can find the per­sonal di­aries and cor­re­spon­dence of Ce­cil Beaton. It seems a lit­tle ironic that this is the fi­nal resting place for his ebul­lient out­pour­ings, given that he spent far more time in the theatre than he ever did at a desk. How­ever, his stint at St John’s was still an im­por­tant one, pro­vid­ing the fledg­ling aes­thete with the so­cial con­nec­tions that would make him not merely a so­ci­ety pho­tog­ra­pher, but a celebrity in his own right.

Beaton was re­mark­ably pro­lific – a Re­nais­sance man who pho­tographed both fashion and the war, a writer, artist, set and cos­tume de­signer, and all-round ar­biter of style. Born in 1904 and ac­tive up un­til the late 1970s, he left an in­deli­ble mark upon the 20th cen­tury, seek­ing out and record­ing beauty in all its guises. ‘Beaton en­tered the cre­ative realm with ease, and it is dif­fi­cult to know where his life in art stopped and his real life be­gan,’ says Lisa Im­mordino Vree­land (Diana Vree­land’s grand­daugh­terin-law), who spent weeks at Beaton’s for­mer college leaf­ing though his pa­pers for her new book and doc­u­men­tary film. ‘This is what at­tracted me to him the most – his drive to rein­vent the world around him.’

Less than a week af­ter ar­riv­ing at Cam­bridge in 1922, Beaton wrote in his di­ary: ‘I don’t want peo­ple to know me as I re­ally am but as I’m try­ing and pre­tend­ing to be.’ Ex­traor­di­nar­ily so­cially aware even as a child, he used pho­tog­ra­phy as a means of el­e­vat­ing both him­self and those around him into the smart set, sub­mit­ting care­fully staged snaps of his mother and sis­ters to fash­ion­able mag­a­zines. His early friend­ships proved vi­tal to his later suc­cess – Stephen Ten­nant, the son of a Scot­tish peer, in­tro­duced him to the Bright Young Things, in­clud­ing Rex Whistler, Lady Diana Man­ners and the Mit­fords, while Edith, Os­bert and Sacheverell Sitwell helped the emerg­ing pho­tog­ra­pher to find in­ter­est­ing peo­ple to sit for him. Beaton’s bi­og­ra­pher Hugo Vick­ers de­scribes him as ‘an ace re-toucher of his work, draw­ing waists in, slen­deris­ing necks, re­mov­ing un­wanted lines, and pre­sent­ing his sub­ject as a vi­sion of glam­our’; such was his ap­peal that be­fore long, the cream of so­ci­ety were seek­ing him out.

Ea­ger to broaden his hori­zons, Beaton trav­elled to New York in 1928 with lit­tle more than his cam­era equip­ment, and to Hol­ly­wood the fol­low­ing year, this time in the com­pany of the screen­writer Anita Loos. ‘Nowhere else in the world are there gathered to­gether so many con­ven­tion­ally beau­ti­ful peo­ple,’ he wrote, shortly af­ter his ar­rival. ‘This is a town in­hab­ited al­most en­tirely by gods and god­desses of beauty. The girl shut­ting the win­dows is Venus, dis­guised as an ex­quis­ite Madonna. The news­pa­per boy is a young Apollo. Ev­ery cashier-girl, with golden sausage curls, is even pret­tier than Mary Pick­ford.’

Over the years, Beaton was to pho­to­graph count­less ac­tors and ac­tresses, cap­tur­ing them with his pen as well as with his cam­era. Au­drey Hep­burn was ‘an urchin with im­pec­ca­ble dis­tinc­tion’, Mick Jag­ger ‘a rare phe­nom­e­non’ and Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe ‘walks like an un­du­lat­ing basilisk, scorch­ing ev­ery­thing in her path but the rose­mary bushes’. Oth­ers were ex­posed to his un­fet­tered vit­riol: El­iz­a­beth Tay­lor was ‘ev­ery­thing I dis­like’ and he called Katharine Hep­burn ‘a rot­ten in­grained viper’ and ‘a dried-up boot’. His pro­nounced and of­ten ar­bi­trary opin­ions led Tru­man Capote to ob­serve that ‘he gath­ers en­e­mies the way other peo­ple gather roses’.

Some celebrities made a deeper im­pres­sion, most no­tably Greta Garbo, with whom Beaton had a brief af­fair, de­spite be­ing ho­mo­sex­ual. ‘I am ob­sessed by Greta,’ he wrote. ‘The mo­ment I wake in the morn­ing I start to think about her, and so it goes on all day and then in my dreams at night.’

Beaton’s for­ays into the film world won him three Os­cars, for the cos­tume and set de­sign of Gigi and My Fair Lady, both en­livened by his vis­ual flair. Al­though cinema, bal­let and es­pe­cially theatre were life­long pas­sions, the one thing he was un­able to suc­ceed at was play­writ­ing. ‘He tried for 30 years to write his script for The Gains­bor­ough Girls,’ re­calls Vick­ers. ‘But it just didn’t work. I re­mem­ber say­ing that to Au­drey Hep­burn once, and she just laughed and said, “Well, he couldn’t do ev­ery­thing.”’

Al­though dart­ing be­tween Lon­don and the US was cru­cial for his ca­reer, Beaton felt hap­pi­est in Wilt­shire. In 1930 he rented Ash­combe House, then a derelict Ge­or­gian manor sur­rounded by rolling coun­try­side, and re­stored it to his own taste, adding the­atri­cal touches such as a red-and­white-striped gilt bed shaped like a cir­cus tent, and en­ter­tain­ing fre­quently. When the lease ex­pired in 1945, he bought Red­dish House, in the vil­lage of Broade Chalke, and for the rest of his life di­vided his days be­tween there and his home in South Kens­ing­ton. In a 1971 doc­u­men­tary by the pho­tog­ra­pher David Bailey, Beaton is shown in his gar­den at Red­dish, sur­rounded by banks of daf­fodils and white hy­acinths. ‘When I first came down here, I thought, “This is where I be­long,”’ Beaton says in highly enun­ci­ated Ed­war­dian tones, as he prunes a climb­ing rose. ‘I love the free­dom that the coun­try gives you, and that’s be­come more and more im­por­tant to me.’

This Ar­ca­dian set­ting must have seemed idyl­lic fol­low­ing the out­break of World War II, dur­ing which he acted as an of­fi­cial war pho­tog­ra­pher. Al­though he wasn’t on the front line, he still en­dured con­sid­er­able phys­i­cal hard­ship and sur­vived a plane crash. His images, par­tic­u­larly those of Lon­don dur­ing the Blitz, were in­stru­men­tal in rais­ing Amer­ica’s aware­ness of what was go­ing on in Bri­tain at the time, such as his emo­tive pic­ture of an in­jured child clutch­ing her teddy bear, which made the cover of Life mag­a­zine. ‘I saw all sorts of peo­ple I would never have known un­less my cam­era lens had been my pass­port,’ he later re­called. ‘The war took me out­side my re­stricted or­bit.’

It cer­tainly had an im­pact on his fashion pho­tog­ra­phy; in Lisa Im­mordino Vree­land’s book, she de­lib­er­ately places two ed­i­to­rial shoots side by side, one from 1937, the other from 1941, while Beaton was in-be­tween wartime as­sign­ments. The for­mer is wildly ro­man­tic – the lan­guid mod­els are sur­rounded by masses of flow­ers, pos­ing against the back­drop of a painted land­scape. In the lat­ter, the clothes are shot straight-on, the mod­els’ faces and hands blurred into ob­scu­rity, the back­ground plain pa­per. For the first time, Beaton’s work re­flected, briefly, a sense of aus­ter­ity.

His 1954 book The Glass of Fashion is still in print to­day, al­though the early-20th-cen­tury tastemak­ers that he chron­i­cles are largely for­got­ten. Even at the time of writ­ing, Beaton was acutely aware that he was evok­ing a van­ish­ing age, cel­e­brat­ing the faded stars of the Ed­war­dian era ‘with all the nos­tal­gia of a pop­u­lar song or a sum­mer’s day pic­nic’. Read­ing these pen-por­traits makes you com­pre­hend the last­ing ap­peal that pho­tog­ra­phy held for him. It was his way of cap­tur­ing the ephemeral, or as he him­self put it, ‘to pre­serve the fleet­ing mo­ment like a fly in am­ber’. Yet Beaton was not nos­tal­gic – his cre­ative out­put evolved with each pass­ing decade, and he al­ways evinced a lively in­ter­est in other peo­ple. The sheer vol­ume of his archives – the many pho­to­graphs, draw­ings, de­signs, scrap­books and di­aries – are a tes­ta­ment to a life lived to the fullest, recorded in lov­ing de­tail. Beaton seemed to ex­ist on a higher plane; he not only cap­tured the tran­sience of or­di­nary ex­is­tence but im­bued it with beauty, for all to share.

In one of the fi­nal recorded in­ter­views he gave, the in­ter­viewer ob­served that there could be few distin­guished men and women of his era he wasn’t ac­quainted with. Far from resting on his lau­rels, Beaton replied with char­ac­ter­is­tic mod­esty. ‘Oh I don’t know – there are so many that I haven’t met that I long to meet. I want to start all over again.’ ‘Love, Ce­cil: A Jour­ney with Ce­cil Beaton’ by Lisa Im­mordino Vree­land (£40, Abrams) and the doc­u­men­tary ‘Love, Ce­cil’ are out now.

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