The Photography of Cecil Beaton
Born in January of 1904 in the Hampstead area of London, Sir Cecil Walter Hardy Beaton was a British portrait, fashion and war photographer. He was also a painter, an interior designer and a designer of stage set and costumes, for which he received two Academy Awards.
Cecil Beaton was the eldest of four children born to Ernest Beaton, a prosperous timber merchant and amateur actor, and Esther Sisson, the daughter of a Cumbrian blacksmith. His primary education was at Heath Mount School in rural Hertfordshire, where he was recognized for both his singing and artistic talent. Beaton received his initial instruction in photography and film development from his governess. When he considered his work acceptable, he sent photos to London society magazines under a pseudonym.
Beaton attended the prestigious Harrow School in Greater London and then entered St. John’s College at Cambridge, where he studied history, art and architecture. He continued his photographic work during his college years. Beaton, never having a strong interest in academia, left Cambridge without a degree in 1925. After a short period in the family’s timber business, he left and concentrated on a career in his main interest, photography. After a period of study under one of London’s youngest photographers Paul Tanqueray, Beaton set up his own studio in London.
Through the patronage of English author and poet Osbert Sitwell, Cecil Beaton had his first photography exhibition at London’s Cooling Gallery at Southampton Row. This successful show in 1927 established him as one of the leading fashion and portrait photographers of his generation. Beaton was soon hired as a staff photographer for Vanity Fair magazine and both the American and British editions of Vogue magazine. He developed a style of portraiture where the sitter was merely one element of an overall decorative pattern, dominated by backgrounds of unusual materials. In addition to his fashion and society work, Beaton traveledd to the United States and began to photograph many celebrities in Hollywood.
Beaton’s celebrity portraits had a sparse composition and a sensual directness that in essence freed his subjects from their respective eras. Devoted to the social scenes he lived in and passionate for his individual subjects, Beaton was committed to capturing their charisma on film. Among the celebrities he photographed were the solemn looking, plain dressed Gary Cooper in 1931, Greta Garbo at the Plaza Hotel in 1946, and the boyish-looking Truman Capote in 1948. Beaton also took many portraits of the English and foreign elite, including Lady Diane Cooper, Winston Churchill, Caroline of Monaco, and Charles de Gaulle. He also shot a portrait of the young Queen Elizabeth in 1939 and in 1953, photographed her daughter Elizabeth II on her Coronation Day.
During World War II, Cecil Beaton served in the British Ministry of Information, as a leading war photographer covering the fighting in Africa and East Asia. During this period his style sharpened and the compositional range of his photographs widened. Beaton’s photographs taken during the the siege of Britain were published in 1942 in a collection entitled “Winged Squadrons”. After the war, he continued his portrait photography; his style however had mellowed due to his war experience and became less flamboyant. Beaton broadened his work at this time and began to design costumes and sets for both film and theater productions.
One of Beaton’s first designs for the Broadway stage was a 1946 revival of Oscar Wilde’s comedy “Lady Windermere’s Fan” for which he designed costumes, sets, and lighting. In 1956, he designed costumes for the stage production of Lerner and Loewe’s “My Fair Lady”. The success of Beaton’s work led to designs for two of Lerner and Loewe film musicals, the 1958 “Gigi” and the 1964 “My Fair Lady”, each of which earned Beaton an Academy Award for Best Costume Design. For his many Broadway design works, he was the recipient of four Tony Awards. Beaton also designed sets and costumes for the New York’s 1961 Metropolitan Opera and London’s 1963 Covent Garden productions of Puccini’s “Turandot”.
In 1947, Cecil Beaton leased the historic Georgian manor Ashcombe House in Wiltshire after a visit accompanied by sculptor Stephen Tomlin and writer Edith Olivier. He employed architect Michael Rosenauer to make substantial renovations and alterations to the manor. At Ashcombe House, Beaton lavishly entertained such guests as Welsh painter and etcher Augustus John, English aristocrat Lady Diane Cooper, actress Tallulah Bankhead, artist Salvador Dali, and fashion illustrator Christian Bérard. In 1948, Beaton designed a fabric, still used among designers today, which he named “Ashcombe Stripe” after the manor. In 1947, Beaton bought Reddish House in Broad Chalke where he remained until his death.
In his personal life, Beaton had relationships with various men, including his two great loves, British arts patron Peter Watson and American art historian Kin Hoitsma, who was also a former Olympic fencer. He also had relationships with women, including Greta Garbo, the dancer Adel Astaire, and socialite Doris Castlerosse. In 1972, Beaton received the state honor of being knighted at the New Years Honors. Two years later, he suffered a stroke that paralyzed his right side. Although he adapted to the condition and continued his photographic work, Beaton became anxious about his financial security. Philippe Garner of Sotheby’s acquired Beaton’s archive, excluding work of the Royal Family and that held by Vogue, and oversaw its preservation and partial dispersal, which allowed Beaton an annual income.
Cecil Beaton’s health faded by the end of the 1970s. He died in January of 1980, four days after his seventy-sixth birthday, at his home in Broad Chalke; he is buried in the nearby churchyard. Beaton’s work has been shown in many exhibitions and retrospectives over the years, including at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC and the Imperial War Museum in London, among others.
Note: An interesting article to read would be Sooanne Berner’s “Ten Things You Might Not Know About Cecil Beaton” located at the online magazine “AnOther” : https://www.anothermag.com/art-photography/10296/ten-things-you-might-not-know-about-cecil-beaton
Top Insert Image: Photographer Unknown, “Cecil beaton in Sandwich, England”, circa 1920s, Gelatin Silver Print, Cecil Beaton Studio Photos, Sotheby’s
Second Insert Image: Curtis Moffat, “Cecil beaton”, circa 1930, Gelatin Silver Print, Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Third Insert Image: Photographer Unknown, “Cecil Beaton and Gary Cooper, 1931, Gelatin Silver Print
Fourth Insert Image: Photographer Unknown, “Cecil Beaton and Stephen Tennant”, 1927, National Portrait Gallery, London
Bottom Insert Image: Jack Mitchell, “Cecil Beaton”, 1963, Silver Gelatin Print, Getty Images