Photographer, artist, designer and socialite, Cecil Beaton was born in Hampstead, London, on 14 January 1904, into the family of a wealthy merchant. Whilst at Harrow School, he developed a passion for both photography and social advancement which, combined with his natural talent for aesthetics, subsequently propelled him to the heights of fame.
As a prominent member of the "Bright Young People" during the 1920s a set he had purposefully adopted Beaton photographed a generation of glitzy young socialites and artists with unique style. His sparkling photographs provide a fascinating record of this enduringly popular group, but his ambition was not satisfied. In the late 1920s, he headed for Hollywood and New York, working for Condé Nast as a portrait and fashion photographer, and quickly created a formidable reputation, and an international demand for his work.
After the Second World War, during which he worked as a photographer for the Ministry of Information, Beaton continued as before, albeit altering his style to fit with changing times. He also earned acclaim for his costume designs, winning Oscars for 'Gigi' in 1957 and 'My Fair Lady' in 1964. Beaton's brilliant eye, theatrical persona, ruthless ambition and addiction to social advancement kept him in work for over six decades. From Stephen Tennant and the Sitwells to Andy Warhol and the Rolling Stones, from 1920s flappers to Twiggy, Beaton straddled the 20th century, recording its heroes and starlets, fashions and tastes.
Self and Society
From an early age, Cecil Beaton was driven by the anxiety that "he had been born into an inartistic, unpretentious middle-class family and did not belong there" (Vickers 1985, page 40). Admitting that he was both a snob and "the most self-centred person in the world" (loc cit, quoting Diary, 9 October 1923), his artistic and social development were simultaneous and inseparable.
He was drawn to opulent people and precious objects, and went to great lengths to remake the world in the image of his ideal. Presenting himself as an "aesthete", he explored his identity through a series of increasingly public creative activities. So he came to establish himself as a photographer, an artist and illustrator, and a designer of sets, costumes and domestic interiors; and also as a writer and an amateur actor.
Even as a young child, Beaton was enamoured by glamour, and especially feminine glamour. His exotic, flamboyant aunt Jessie Suarez, wife of a Bolivian envoy, provided an early focus for his desires, though he was almost as entranced by his mother's ability to transform herself for the evening. The details of their clothes the cut, the colour, the texture proved a particular thrill. Gradually, they were supplemented by more established models, in the photographs of Lily Elsie, and other stars of stage and screen, that appeared on postcards and in periodicals. The attraction of such figures for Beaton was undoubtedly complex, and became increasingly so, as he moved from observation through adulation to impersonation.
Such sexual ambiguity, as an element of an aesthetic personality, seems to have been condoned if not necessarily encouraged by dominant elements of the education system of the day. In single sex private schools and especially university colleges, pretty boys with a talent for performance were regarded by members of staff and many pupils as essential to cultural life. So, though he came from an "unpretentious middle-class family", and was neither academic nor sporting, Beaton found ways to distinguish himself.
At Heath Mount Preparatory School, Hampstead, and St Cyprian's, Eastbourne, Beaton was given the freedom to explore his theatrical and artistic interests. He cut out and embellished portraits of actors from Tatler and The Sketch, made a toy theatre and, with a fondness for mimicry, took part in school plays.
Harrow provided greater opportunities, in large part because of "Eggie" Hine, the influential art master. He treated Beaton as his favourite and encouraged him to aspire to become an exhibitor at the Royal Academy, as would Edward Le Bas, Beaton's best friend at the time. However, Beaton showed more immediate success in performance, twice winning the Lady Bourchier Reading Prize and "invariably" taking the female lead in the plays produced by the dramatic society of his house (Vickers 1985, page 21). He also became an enthusiastic amateur photographer' with the help of his nanny, "Ninnie" Collard (op cit, page 24).
Beaton was accepted by St John's College, Cambridge, in 1922, on the strength of his father's force of character and a reference from his house master, rather than on any solid achievement of his own. Nevertheless, he rarely attempted to apply himself to his course of studies. Instead, he seems to have perceived Cambridge mainly as a larger, more public, stage than Harrow, upon which he could promote his talents and so gain celebrity within Society.
Beaton succeeded in joining the Amateur Dramatic Club and the Marlowe Society, both of which had a high profile at the time, regularly drawing audiences from London and receiving reviews in the national dailies. Having engineered a central position within these groups, he gained a reputation for performances in female roles and, of more lasting significance, for his set and costume designs.
The last university production to which Beaton contributed was the Footlights' All the Vogue, "performed in a professional theatre for seven nights" in the summer term of 1925 (Vickers 1985, page 46). He marked the event by being photographed in female costume by the society photographer, Dorothy Wilding. Indeed, throughout his time at Cambridge, and on his return to London, he did all he could to ensure publicity for himself and for his family. He attended parties and joined his mother on charity committees, took and sat for photographs, and worked hard to be noticed by press and patrons.
Bright Young People and Sacred Monsters
Most frequent among the sitters in Beaton's early photographs were his sisters, Nancy and Barbara, known as "Baba". Their exposure in the press would eventually help them gain advantageous marriages as, respectively, Lady Smiley (in 1933) and Mrs Alec Hambro (in 1934). In the meantime, however, they had to work hard for Cecil, striking awkward poses for hours on end, and receiving treatment similar to his studio props.
A spectacular example of both their usefulness to their brother and the allure that he gave to them is Baba and Nancy Beaton, almost certainly taken soon after the family moved to 61 Sussex Gardens, W2, in February 1926. It shows them sitting within the curtains of Cecil's bed, against the fleurs-de-lis that he had painted on his walls, like striking cut-out figures on a model stage. The Victorian glass dome that here covers artificial flowers was often placed over the heads of his sitters, including such family friends as Angela and Daphne du Maurier. The implication seems to have been that human appearance was just as unnatural, and as ready for improvement by the manipulation of an artist, as any inert material.
1926 proved an annus mirabilis for Beaton, as he entered the orbit of prominent people who responded with sympathy to his artificial aesthetic. From the November, his friend, Allanah Harper, began to introduce him to members of the fashionable set that had been lately dubbed the "Bright Young People", including Brenda Dean Paul, Eleanor Smith and Zita and Baby' Jungman. It was also Harper who brought the poet, Edith Sitwell, and fashion journalist, Madge Garland, to lunch at Sussex Gardens on 7 December, on which occasion Beaton not only showed them his work and studio but also took his first photographs of Sitwell. Then a fortnight later, he met the writer and illustrator, Stephen Tennant, at a party given by Bridget Guinness, aunt to the Jungman twins.
Well off and well connected, Edith Sitwell and Stephen Tennant may be considered as two sides of the same coin. For, though Sitwell had been treated cruelly by her mother and Tennant "cosseted and spoiled" by his (Vickers, 1985, page 86), they survived in similar ways, by transforming themselves into monstres sacrés, eccentric geniuses that were above and beyond criticism. Gradually, Tennant would withdraw into himself, while Sitwell became something of a national institution, even appearing on Face to Face (1959) and This is Your Life (1962). But, at the time that Beaton first met them, and into the 1930s, they both made convincing claims to cultural hegemony, claims encouraged by Beaton's aesthetic. In what are now icons of the age, his images sanctified or even deified Sitwell, while representing Tennant and his coterie, including Beaton himself, as aristocrats of the ancien régime recreating Watteau's fêtes champêtres.
In November 1927, a year after meeting Sitwell and Tennant, Beaton held his first exhibition of photographs, drawings and theatrical designs at the Cooling Galleries, Bond Street. The range of sitters on display demonstrated how far he had come both socially and artistically, stars of the stage and of the season appearing with equal prominence. Figures he had once only admired from afar such as Lady Diana Cooper and Paula Gellibrand, the Marquesa de Casa Maury now happily succumbed to his lens. Subsequent images of Gellibrand, one of Beaton's favourite models, make clear why this was so. However haphazard and homespun his raw materials, Beaton had honed his theatrical instinct into something highly sophisticated, so was able to provide a perfect balance of setting and sitter. He would present a woman at her best even if, as with Margot Asquith, it meant showing her from behind.
Beaton proved well suited to an age that often blurred the activities of high culture and high society. He and his friend and rival, Oliver Messel, designed with equal seriousness and success for theatrical productions and charity balls. The aristocratic Diana Cooper could appear on stage in Max Reinhardt's The Miracle, while the dancer and choreographer, Tilly Losch, could enter the aristocracy by marrying Lord Carnarvon. And, in photographing such manifestations, Beaton added a further layer of aesthetic artifice.
New York and Hollywood
In August 1926, before meeting Sitwell and Tennant, Beaton had made a somewhat unsuccessful trip to Venice with a pair of lady journalists. They intended to report on Baroness d'Erlanger's costume ball, and he hoped to enter the d'Erlanger set and so receive its patronage. Though he attended the ball at La Fenice and photographed it, the event proved a fiasco in general and of little aid to his advancement. Neither did a subsequent interview with the impresario, Sergei Diaghilev, bear fruit.
These abortive attempts at self-promotion contrast greatly with Beaton's success, from 1929, in New York, Hollywood, and Paris. His experiences abroad throughout the 1930s established him as a figure of international standing and initiated some of his most significant friendships, with, for example, Greta Garbo (from 1932) and Christian Bérard (from 1933).
On his arrival in New York on 9 November 1928, Beaton compared it with Venice and found Venice wanting: This is essentially modern, utilitarian and stark, and yet it possesses all the glamour of eighteenth-century palaces' (quoted by Vickers, 1985, page 110). A new continent afforded him a fresh start and, as a contributor to Vogue for over a year, he visited its New York offices on his first full day in the city. Edna Woolman Chase, its editor in chief, was impressed with his work and a number of articles and drawings were planned' (Vickers, loc cit). Vogue's owner, Condé Nast, was also responsive, inviting him to dinner and commissioning him to photograph his daughter, Natica. In the following years, Nast's apartment would host Beaton's photographic sittings for Lee Miller and Marion Morehouse, among others.
Beaton was envious of the acclaim that New York had given to Noël Coward and still essentially a virgin shocked at the sexual licence that Beverley Nichols had sought and found in the city. Nevertheless, his association with Vogue provided him with the foundation to make an impressively swift entrée into American society. Soon, he was offered exhibitions at the Elsie de Wolfe Gallery in New York and the Everglades Club Ballroom in Palm Beach.
The effect that America had on Beaton's life and art revealed itself more certainly on his second visit to the country, accompanied by Anita Loos, in November 1929. His main achievement on that occasion would be to photograph film stars in Hollywood for Vanity Fair, Vogue's sister magazine. While waiting to leave New York for California, he had his first sexual encounters with women, first Marjorie Oelrichs, then, two days later, Adèle Astaire (sister of Fred). But this experience was soon eclipsed by the impact of Hollywood on his photography.
Working away from his familiar studio and its resources, and with sitters who habitually faced the lens, Beaton adopted new settings and props, and experimented with new formats. His portraits from this period, and through the 1930s, reveal an increasing reliance on close-ups of the face, often strongly modelled by contrasting light and shade, and also the increasing incorporation of floral motifs. These tropes give the images immediacy and freshness, and may even express the photographer's attempts to respond more directly to the people in front of him. Yet, on closer inspection, they do not quite retain the natural quality that they first suggest. Beaton's aesthetic remained highly artful if not so brazenly artificial, and made frequent nods towards Surrealism.
Paris and the Mediterranean
This shift in Beaton's art towards a more concentrated poetic quality was due, in part, to visits to France with his lover, Peter Watson and to the influence of their artistic friends based in Paris and on the Mediterranean. He was inspired by the painter, Pavel Tchelitchew, and became especially close to Christian Bérard, the painter, illustrator and designer, until his death in 1949, at the early age of forty-seven. However, it was Jean Cocteau who undoubtedly dominated the circle that Beaton now entered.
Early in his career, in 1917, Cocteau had risen to Diaghilev's challenge to "astonish" him with a work for his Ballets Russes. His response was to write the scenario for the ballet, Parade, for which Léonide Massine provided the choreography, Eric Satie the music and Pablo Picasso the designs. Cocteau considered Picasso one of his masters, and they became friends and friendly rivals.
Others to pass from Diaghilev into the orbit of Cocteau included Diaghilev's secretary, Boris Kochno, who became Bérard's lover; the dancer, Serge Lifar; the conductor and composer, Igor Markevitch; and Bérard himself. All were involved in keeping alive the spirit of the Ballets Russes following Diaghilev's death in 1929.
"Bébé" Bérard was Cocteau's favourite designer, and they collaborated closely across their careers in the theatre and on publications, a collaboration that would culminate in their work on four films in the 1940s, most memorably La Belle et la bête of 1946. Their intimacy is epitomised by what might be considered a holiday task, the mural that they produced together in the summer of 1932, in the loggia of the Villa Blanche, near Toulon, home of the playwright, Edouard Bourdet, and his second wife, Denise.
Yet Beaton recorded that Bérard actually "despised" the influence of Cocteau (Diary, June 1935, quoted in Vickers, 1985, page 184), and it seems that Cocteau could have a baleful effect on those around him. The shadow that he cast is exemplified by his intimate relationships with women.
Like Beaton himself, Cocteau was predominantly homosexual, but had a number of heterosexual infatuations or affairs, including one with Marie-Laure Bischoffsheim before her marriage to the Comte de Noailles in 1923. Attempting to remain on friendly terms with Cocteau, she and her husband financed his film, Le Sang de Poète, in 1930, but its scandalous reception damaged the remaining bond. Then, two years later, Cocteau's affair with Madame Natalia Lelong the iconic Princess Paley inflamed Marie-Laure's jealousy. She brought the affair to an end and, it is said, encouraged Natalia to have an abortion. So it seems highly symbolic if not downright tactless that Beaton should photograph Cocteau and Marie-Laure de Noailles on separate shoots in the remains of the 1937 Exposition Internationale: love among the ruins.
Not that this seemed to do Beaton any harm. Both the work that he produced and the people that he met in the 1930s ensured him a reputation abroad as well as at home. On returning to Venice in 1951 for "the party of the century", the Beistegui costume ball at the Palazzo Labia, he was no longer sidelined and ignored; he was among friends and photographing the event for Vogue. The spectre of failure had been laid to rest.
For King and Country
When Beaton was summoned to Buckingham Palace to photograph Queen Elizabeth, in 1939, it must have felt like the summit of achievement for the middle-class "snob" desperate to get into society. The event was a great success in itself, with praise in the press for the photographs, but also the starting point for Beaton to become the Royal photographer of choice. It was he who photographed Princess Elizabeth in her uniform of Honorary Colonel of the Grenadier Guards in 1942, and he who was chosen to record her coronation in 1953.
Yet far more significant for the development of his art was Beaton's appointment as a photographer for the Ministry of Information in 1940, a year after the outbreak of the Second World War. Specially selected by Sir Kenneth Clark to inject the visual record with aesthetic style and substance, he received assignments that he may never otherwise have considered, first on the home front and then across the world, from the Mediterranean and the Middle East (1942) to India and China (1943-44).
The portraits that he took at the time in themselves extended his range, beyond the glamorous and the grand to children and old men. The old men may have included the Prime Minister in his finest hour and a well-known painter of great originality, but they were still old men at sixty-six and eighty respectively and Beaton portrayed them with clarity and sensitivity. Such characterful representations of the elderly, both male and female, would become a hallmark of his later career, as if his eyes had been opened to less conventional forms of beauty. Certainly, the war forced him to confront human beings in extremis.
The urgency of war allowed Beaton fewer opportunities to prepare to stage a photograph, but his instinct for drama helped him discover and capture coups de théâtre out in the field. Having travelled widely for a decade and having made reportage his own, he was now quick to select a memorable motif, as in the shell-shattered ceiling of a fire station or the remains of tanks on a battlefield. Ever the opportunist, he also used the bombed buildings of the City of London as a backdrop for a fashion shoot, so creating images as startling and surreal as those he once took pains to create in the studio.
Throughout the war, Beaton remained highly industrious, photographing for Vogue as well as the Ministry, and designing for both stage and screen. Such traits as his determination to succeed may, at one time, have seemed merely self-seeking, but now proved as beneficial to the country at large. In recording events around him, and in contributing to morale and propaganda, Beaton revealed to himself and to others what he was fighting for.
New Trends and Timeless Ideals
The young Beaton had been so determined to find approval from a particular privileged set that his work could easily have become outdated as society changed. Conversely, it could have merely kept up with fashion, a charge made by Cyril Connolly who sat for Beaton in 1942 in dubbing him "Rip-van-with-it" (The Sunday Times, 13 March 1966, quoted by Vickers 1985, page 506). So it is surely to his credit that the aesthetic that he developed was distinctive, adaptable and durable, ready to be used to his advantage and for each of the groups that he encountered.
From the mid 1940s, those groups would increase in number and range, as Beaton sustained established connections, capitalised on wartime opportunities and embraced new trends and personalities. And while the categories of people that he photographed may have remained essentially the same, the individuals that represented them were often very different in character or social background. So, in photographing writers, for example, his subject was now as likely to be Harold Pinter as Evelyn Waugh, while artist sitters included Andy Warhol and Gilbert and George.
Not that Beaton worked solely, or even mainly, as a photographer in his later career. His gradual development as a designer for stage and screen took off in a big way at the end of the war on both sides of the Atlantic. His gentle Romanticism made him an ideal collaborator for the choreographer, Frederick Ashton, while his visual wit was well applied to productions of classic English comedies from Sheridan to Coward.
His contributions to the film versions of the musicals, Gigi (1958) and My Fair Lady (1964), by Lerner and Loewe, gained him Oscars and made him a household name. The films also gave him new muses in the shape of Leslie Caron and Audrey Hepburn. Indeed, the projects could be considered together as the apotheosis of Beaton's art. For, through a combination of design and (moving) photographic image, they present an exquisite, idealised imitation of an elegant Edwardian world, in which young people attempt to succeed in society.
Cecil Beaton died at Reddish House, Broad Chalk, Wiltshire, on 18 January 1980.