British Photographer, Costume and Set Designer, Painter, Diarist
Hampstead, London, United Kingdom
Broad Chalke, Wiltshire, United Kingdom
Summary of Cecil Beaton
Beaton was one of the foremost photographers of the twentieth century, best known for his elegant and unusual shots of celebrities and royalty. His fascination with glamour and high society continued throughout his life and he was considered a style leader in his own right, known for his easy charm and wit as well as his flamboyance of dress and waspish comments on celebrity figures, a trait that prompted the writer Jean Cocteau to dub him "Malice in Wonderland". He was also a prominent innovator in the relatively new field of fashion photography, an accomplished photojournalist, the winner of two Oscars for his costume design, and a prolific writer publishing numerous texts, including six volumes of his own diaries. Extremely ambitious, Beaton's superb aesthetic eye and flair for the theatrical allowed him to remain relevant over a 50-year career during which he regularly reinvented himself and his style.
- Beaton excelled at capturing the individual personality of his sitters, presenting them in new ways that brought out elements of their character not seen in other portraits. In doing so, he made them accessible and sympathetic to the wider public, helping to create or reinforce their status as iconic social figures.
- His fashion photographs were characterized by their decorative appearance and interesting compositions and his earlier images often contained elements of Surrealism. He was particularly known for his use of unusual backgrounds including cellophane, silver foil and papier mâché and these complex sets are clearly rooted in theatrical practice.
- Beaton utilized his photographic talents during the Second World War to document the British war effort, photographing the lives of normal people as well as the key political players of the era. His images depict a country doing its best to carry on as normal and are infused with a sense of national pride, consequently many were utilized as propaganda to keep morale high during the conflict.
- Although Beaton dated a number of women including Greta Garbo, he preferred men and he had several prominent gay relationships. This gave him a sense of guilt and shame throughout much of his life and this was a significant driving force in his desire for high achievement, proving his abilities to himself and others. It has also been suggested that Beaton's interpretation of female glamour and male muscularity may have been informed by his sexuality and that this, along with his photo colleges, subsequently influenced the queer visual culture of Pop Art in the 1960s, including artists such as Andy Warhol and David Hockney.
Biography of Cecil Beaton
Sir Cecil Walter Hardy Beaton was born in Hampstead, England to Ernest Beaton, a timber merchant, and Esther Sisson. He was one of four children. The family were middle class and Beaton's interest in the arts was encouraged from a young age. In his biography, Photobiography (1951) Beaton discusses the moment when he first developed an interest in photography, pinpointing an occasion when he was three years old and saw some postcards depicting Lily Elsie, an Edwardian singer and actress. He subsequently made visits to his local stationers to spend his pocket money on postcards of as many famous actresses as he could. His father also brought him theatre magazines and illustrated theatre programmes from America when he travelled on business. Beaton was given his first camera, a Box-Brownie, at the age of 11. His nurse, Alice Collard, (known as 'Ninnie'), a keen amateur photographer, initially helped him to polish his technique and with this assistance, Beaton started to take photographs of his family, often posing his sisters and mother in a manner that emulated Hollywood starlets.
Important Art by Cecil Beaton
Beaton had a penchant for the theatrical and this can be seen in this photograph of his sister Nancy who models her fancy dress costume for the Galaxy Ball at London's Park Lane Hotel. The dramatic backlighting focuses attention on her face and torso, whilst the sheer, jagged backdrop, alluding to the rocky surface of a star, merges with the skirt of her costume making her part of the star itself. The use of cellophane in the backdrop produces intricate patterns of reflection, allowing her to also embody the luminosity of a star. In his early portraits, Beaton often utilized this technique of wrapping his sitters in beautiful or interesting backdrops and this enabled Beaton to distance them from their real selves and immerse them completely in the photographic world that he had created. Here, Beaton's depiction of a character is so convincing that, without context, Nancy Beaton does not simply adopt a fantasy role, she actually becomes the fantasy character.
In 1934, Beaton was commissioned by Vogue to shoot an image of this hat by Suzy. Beaton fulfilled the request in his trademark style with an image that exudes playfulness. The hat box is positioned centrally within the photograph and out of it emerges a model's disembodied head wearing the hat. By including an incomplete portion of a woman's body Beaton references one of the tropes of the Surrealist Movement and, in doing so, makes his photograph visually distinct from the average fashion image. This differentiation is enhanced by the model's unusually sad expression. In the work, Beaton utilizes the documentary realism of the photographic medium to normalize the inclusion of the surreal elements, creating a new and convincing reality.
In 2009, the image was chosen by Rankin, the British portrait and fashion photographer, as one of seven photographs that changed fashion photography. Rankin stated that Beaton helped "to set the template for fashion photography. Packaging a world of decadent beauty and above all selling a dream" and that he brought to this photograph "his typical wit and elegance so that what she is wearing is secondary to the beauty of the image."
Here, Beaton depicts Marlene Dietrich in a manner which was in direct contrast to the masculine clothing and androgynous style for which she was known. The delicate lace backdrop, flowers, and Dietrich's feather boa, can all be seen as sensual symbols of traditional femininity. Dietrich's exaggerated body language and the use of theatrical props, jewellery and clothing also make reference to her role as a performer. Mirrors and reflections were a reoccurring theme in Beaton's work and here he plays with the idea, placing Dietrich's face alongside that of a mannequin with a similar hairstyle and eyebrows. The comparison between the two highlights Dietrich's famously pale complexion as well as creating a sense of displacement in the viewer, as unlike a reflection, the two faces look in different directions.
The overall combination of unusual set pieces along with the use of soft focus give a dreamlike effect to the image and this depiction, at once both real and fantastical, corresponds with Beaton's description of Dietrich in his memoir Persona Grata, "From the flat screen Dietrich stormed the senses, looking always tangible, and at the same time untouchable". The combination of beauty and Surrealism showcased in the work can be compared to some of the photographs produced by Man Ray, particularly those depicting Kiki de Montparnasse.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Cecil Beaton
- Cecil Beaton, Photobiography Odhams Press 1951Our PickBeaton's biography up to 1950, he discusses both his career and life
- Cecil Beaton, Hugo Vickers The Glass of Fashion A personal history of fifty years and changing tastes of the people who have inspired them Rizzoli ex Libris, 2014Cecil Beaton's perspectives on fashion over the years
- Cecil Beaton Cecil Beaton's diaries books 1-6 Sapere books, 2018Cecil Beaton's personal diaries, which include insights into his life, career and his interactions with others
- Josephine Ross, Beaton in Vogue Thames and Hudson 2012An overview of Beaton's career at Vogue
- C Spencer, Cecil Beaton Stage and Film designs John Wiley and Sons 1995Focusses on Beaton's work as a designer
- Hugo Vickers, Cecil Beaton: The Authorized Biography Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2002Our PickVery in-depth biography spanning from Beaton's birth to his death, insights into his character, relationships and every aspect of his career
- Suzanne Warner , My Fair Lady Souvenir book: Theatre Royal Drury Lane Purnell and Sons 1958Our PickA documentation of Beaton's time on set for My Fair Lady, provides insights into how he worked on set and his friendship with Audrey Hepburn
- Ten things you might not know about Cecil BeatonOur PickBy Sooanne Berner / AnOther Magazine / 2017
- BEATON & POLLOCK: THE NEW SOFT LOOK 1951By Marjolein Lammerts van Bueren / MLVB / February 28, 2015
- How Cecil Beaton captured the worldBy Lucy Davies / The Telegraph / 2010
- New Again: Sir Cecil BeatonBy Suzie Frankfurt, Sam Green / Interview Magazine / 2016
- Cecil Beaton :The Artist of the PortraitBy Annie Leibovitz / Financial Times / 2015
- Everything you need to know about Cecil BeatonBy Nina Stoller-Lindsey / The Cut / 2014
- How Cecil Beaton helped save the QueenBy Roya Nikkah / The Telegraph / 2012
- A short interview with Beaton about his photoshoot with Marilyn Monroe
- John Freeman Face to Face with Cecil Beaton BBC Knowledge 1962Our PickAn in depth interview that involves questions related to Beaton's life and his career
- Rankin, Seven Photographs that changed Fashion BBC 2009Excerpt of Rankins documentary, in which he discusses Beaton's influence and recreates one of his photographs