Sir Cecil Walter Hardy Beaton (14
January 1904 – 18 January 1980) was an English fashion and portrait
photographer and an Academy Award-winning stage and costume designer
for films and the theatre.
Beaton was born in Hampstead the son of Ernest Beaton and his wife
Etty Sissons. His grandfather had founded the family business of
Beaton Brothers Timber Merchants and Agents, and his father followed
into the business. Ernest Beaton was also an amateur actor and had
met his wife, Cecil's mother, when playing the lead in a play. Cecil
Beaton was educated at Heath Mount School and St Cyprian's School,
Eastbourne, where his artistic talent was quickly recognised. Both
Cyril Connolly and Henry Longhurst report in their autobiographies
being overwhelmed by the beauty of Beaton's singing at the St
Cyprian's school concerts. When Beaton was growing up his Nanny had
a Kodak 3A Camera, a popular model which was renowned for being an
ideal piece of equipment to learn on. Beaton's nanny began teaching
him the basics of photography and developing them in his basement.
He would often get his sisters and mother to sit for him. When he
was sufficiently proficient, he would send the photos off to London
society magazines, often writing under a pen name and ‘recommending’
the work of Beaton.
Beaton went on to Harrow, and then, despite having little or no
interest in academia, moved on to St John's College, Cambridge, and
studied history, art and architecture. Beaton continued his
photography, and through his university contacts managed to get a
portrait sitting with the Duchess of Amalfi — actually George "Dadie"
Rylands, and as Beaton recalled years later: "It was a slightly
out-of-focus snapshot of him as Webster's Duchess of Malfi standing
in the sub-aqueous light outside the men's lavatory of the ADC
Theatre at Cambridge." The resulting images gave Beaton his first
ever piece of published work when Vogue magazine bought and printed
Beaton left Cambridge without a degree in 1925, but only coped with
salaried employment in his father's timber business for eight days.
Beaton designed book jackets and costumes for charity matinees,
learning the professional craft of photography at the studio of Paul
Tanqueray, until Vogue took him on regularly in 1927. He also set up
his own studio, and one of his earliest clients and, later, best
friends was Stephen Tennant; Beaton's photographs of Tennant and his
circle are considered some of the best representations of the
"Bright Young Things" of the twenties and thirties.
He was a photographer for the British edition of Vogue in 1931 when
George Hoyningen-Huene, photographer for the French Vogue traveled
to England with his new friend Horst. Horst himself would begin to
work for French Vogue in November of that year. The exchange and
cross pollination of ideas between this collegial circle of artists
across the Channel and the Atlantic gave rise to the look of style
and sophistication for which the 1930s are known.
Beaton is best known for his fashion photographs and society
portraits. He worked as a staff photographer for Vanity Fair and
Vogue in addition to photographing celebrities in Hollywood.Beaton's
first camera was a Kodak 3A folding camera. Over the course of his
career, he employed both large format cameras, and smaller
Rolleiflex cameras. Beaton was never known as a highly skilled
technical photographer, and instead focused on staging a compelling
model or scene and looking for the perfect shutter-release moment.
Beaton often photographed the Royal Family for official publication.
Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother was his favourite Royal sitter,
and he once pocketed her scented hankie as a keepsake from a highly
successful shoot. Beaton took the famous wedding pictures of the
Duke and Duchess of Windsor (wearing an ensemble by the noted
fashion designer Mainbocher).
During the Second World War, Beaton was initially posted to the
Ministry of Information and given the task of recording images from
the home front. During this assignment he captured one of the most
enduring images of British suffering during the war, that of
three-year-old Blitz victim Eileen Dunne recovering in hospital,
clutching her beloved teddy bear. When the image was published,
America had not yet officially joined the war — but splashed across
the press in the USA, images such as Beaton’s helped push the
American public to put pressure on their Government to help Britain
in its hour of need.
Beaton had a major influence on and relationship with two other
leading lights in British photography, that of Angus McBean and
David Bailey. McBean was arguably the best portrait photographer of
his era — in the second part of McBeans career (post war) his work
is clearly heavily influenced by Beaton, though arguably McBean was
technically far more proficient in his execution. Bailey was also
enormously influenced by Beaton when they met whilst working for
British Vogue in the early 1960s, Bailey's stark use of square
format (6x6) images bears clear connections to Beaton's own working
After the war, Beaton tackled the Broadway stage, designing sets,
costumes, and lighting for a 1946 revival of Lady Windermere's Fan,
in which he also acted.
His most lauded achievement for the stage was the sets and costumes
for Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady (1956), which led to two Lerner
and Loewe film musicals, Gigi (1958) and My Fair Lady (1964), both
of which earned Beaton the Academy Award for Costume Design. He also
designed the period costumes for the 1970 film On a Clear Day You
Can See Forever.
Additional Broadway credits include The Grass Harp (1952), The Chalk
Garden (1955), Saratoga (1959), Tenderloin (1960), and Coco (1969).
He is the winner of four Tony Awards.
In 1972, he was knighted. Two years
later he suffered a stroke that would leave him permanently
paralysed on the right side of his body. Although he learnt to write
and draw with his left hand, and had cameras adapted, Beaton became
frustrated by the new limitations the stroke had put upon his work.
As a result of his stroke, Beaton became anxious about financial
security for his old age and, in 1976, entered into negotiations
with Philippe Garner, expert-in-charge of photographs at Sotheby's.
On behalf of the auction house, Garner acquired Beaton's archive —
excluding all portraits of the Royal Family, and the five decades of
prints held by Vogue in London, Paris and New York. Garner, who had
almost singlehandedly invented the photographic auction, oversaw the
archive's preservation and partial dispersal, so that Beaton's only
tangible assets, and what he considered his life's work, would
ensure him an annual income. The first of five auctions was held in
1977, the last in 1980.
By the end of the 1970s, Beaton's health had faded to that of an old
man. In January 1980, he died during the night at his grand home in
Broad Chalke in Wiltshire.
Although the great love of his life
was art collector Peter Watson, he did, however, have relationships
with women, including the actress Greta Garbo and the British
socialite Doris, Viscountess Castlerosse. His heterosexual virginity
was taken by the American socialite Marjorie Oelrichs. Beaton also
claimed to have had an affair with the American actor Gary Cooper,
who was a close friend of his for many years.
Marlene Dietrich, 1932
The Wyndham Sisters
Charles James Dresses, Paris, 1948
Paula Gellibrand, The Marquesa de Casa Maury,1928
A symphony in silver by Cecil Beaton, 1925
Twiggy at 8 Pelham Place
Queen Elizabeth II at her Coronation, 1953
Baba Beaton, c.1920
Twiggy (Foale and Tuffin Fashion), 1966
Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace wearing the Order of the
Miss Nancy Beaton as a Shooting Star, 1928
Princess Elizabeth as Colonel of the Grenadier Guards, 1942
Coronation Portrait of Her Majesty The Queen, 1953
The Queen with Prince Andrew, March 1960
Sugar Ray Robinson