SIR CECIL BEATON CBE (1904-1980)


Cecil Beaton's brilliant eye, theatrical persona, ruthless ambition and addiction to social advancement kept him in work for over six decades. From young socialites 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.
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QUEEN ELIZABETH II WITH PRINCE ANDREW AND PRINCE EDWARD, MAY 1964 by SIR CECIL BEATON CBE (1904-1980) - photograph for sale from Beetles & Huxley

QUEEN ELIZABETH II WITH PRINCE ANDREW AND PRINCE EDWARD, MAY 1964

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P.O.A

   

Early Years

Cecil Beaton was born in Hampstead, London, on 14 January 1904, into the family of a wealthy merchant. He was educated at Harrow School where he developed a passion for both photography and social advancement. So, though he came from an "unpretentious middle-class family", and was neither academic nor sporting, Beaton found ways to distinguish himself. This was in large part due to 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. 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.

While at Cambridge, Beaton joined 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. 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. His artistic and social development were simultaneous and inseparable. Beaton 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.

Placing himself at the centre of fashionable society in the 1920s, Beaton became a prominent member of the Bright Young People', and photographed a generation of glitzy young socialites, heiresses and artists who gravitated around the figures Osbert and Edith Sitwell and Stephen Tennant. Throughout the decade, though, Beaton's most frequent sitters were his two sisters, Nancy and Barbara, known as Baba'. The sisters proved useful props for the young photographer, as he experimented with backdrops, materials and photographic techniques.

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. 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.

Success Abroad and Royal Commission

eaton's career as a fashion photographer grew naturally out of his work as a society portraitist, and flourished under the patronage of Vogue, first in London and Paris and, by 1929, New York. In the following years, Condé Nast's apartment would host Beaton's photographic sittings for Lee Miller and Marion Morehouse, among others. His association with Vogue provided him with the foundation to make an impressively swift entrée into American society. It was Nast who tore Beaton away from his beloved Kodak 3A, insisting on the adoption of a professional 8 x 10 inch plate camera. A new camera and new continent afforded him a fresh start, and he adopted new settings and props, and experimented with new formats.

The effect that America had on Beaton's life and art revealed itself more certainly on his second visit to the country in November 1929. His main achievement on that occasion would be to photograph film stars in Hollywood for Vanity Fair, Vogue's sister magazine. 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.

The success Beaton achieved in the 1930s reached its height when he was summoned to Buckingham Palace in 1939 to photograph Queen Elizabeth. 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.

War Work and Later Life

In 1940 Beaton was appointed as an official photographer for the Ministry of Information. 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 whom Beaton portrayed with clarity and sensitivity. In September 1940, Life carried Beaton's portrait of three-year-old Blitz victim Eileen Dunne on its front cover. 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. 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 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. Beaton continued to work for Vogue throughout the fifties and the sixties, working on his last sitting for British Vogue in 1973.

Cecil Beaton died at Reddish House, Broad Chalk, Wiltshire, on 18 January 1980.

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