Cecil Beaton - NPG

By Jeremy Miles

Waspish and opinionated but hugely charismatic, Cecil Beaton cut a creative swathe through the 20th century. He was a dandy and socialite who drew, painted watercolours and designed stage and film sets - most notably for My Fair Lady - but above all he was a photographer.

Fashion, society, Royalty, even war; Beaton photographed it all. 

He specialised in portraits - photographs of inimitable style.  The lighting, the design, the extraordinary ability to get beneath the surface of his subject and the sheer power of his intuitive creativity are all trademarks of his work.

For Beaton, who died in 1980, wasn’t just one of the most celebrated portrait photographers of his era. He was responsible for innovations that would have a profound influence on many later talents including David Bailey and Mario Testino.

Now to mark the centenary of his birth the National Portrait Gallery has mounted a major retrospective. Called simply Cecil Beaton: Portraits the exhibition brings together more than 100 photographs from the five remarkable decades of his career including iconic images as well as several never seen in public before.

In the show – astonishingly the first serious overview of his work since Sir Roy Strong’s groundbreaking NPG exhibition in 1968 – we see Beaton capturing 50 years of fashion, art and celebrity from the Sitwells in the 1920s to The Rolling Stones in the late 1960s.

There are definitive portraits of 20th century celebrities alongside more sombre works from his time as a war photographer.

Highlights include his 1956 portrait of Marilyn Monroe accompanied by a handwritten eulogy. There are also pictures from Beaton’s personal photo-album of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s wedding that include never before seen portraits of Wallis Simpson in the grounds of the Chateau de Cande in France.

Born into the intellectual upper classes of the early 20th century, Beaton had opportunity  and connections and he used both to supreme effect. He acquired his first camera at the age of 11 and the exhibition opens with a portrait of his sister BaBa taken a few years later in 1922. 

A number of vintage prints from his first exhibition in 1927 have been reunited, notably a celebrated portrait of Edith Sitwell posed as a gothic tomb sculpture. It was Sitwell and her family’s patronage that confirmed Beaton’s position as the most fashionable young photographer of the day and led to many exciting commissions including a contract with Vogue, with whom he would remain associated for more than 50 years.

Other significant portraits from the early era include Nancy Cunard in front of a polka dot background and writers and poets that include the Dorset based Sylvia Townsend Warner.

There were four visits to Hollywood during which Beaton captured images of Gary Cooper, Loretta Young, Marlene Dietrich and Johnny Weissmuller preparing for his first Tarzan film.  While in Paris he photographed  Coco Chanel, Cocteau and Picasso.

There was a drastic change of subject matter when during the six years of World War II, Beaton became an official war photographer taking pictures of land girls and Blitz victims but he also captured wartime artists like the poet Cecil Day Lewis, the composer Benjamin Britten and the, by then elderly, painter Walter Sickert photographed with his wife Helen Lessore in their garden near Bath.

Post-war Beaton was back in the social milieu photographing up-and-coming stars like Marlon Brando and Yul Brynner. During the 1950s he produced portraits that ranged from images of actresses Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor and Grace Kelly to a strange mixture of male subjects that included Frank Sinatra, John Betjamin, Sugar Ray Robinson, Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud.

It is a testament to Beaton’s adaptability and skill that he reinvented his photographic style for a new decade. He took to the swinging sixties with relish working with some of the eras most charismatic figures including Twiggy, David Hockney and Mick Jagger. These were a new breed of creative icons, a tribe of working class kids taking the world by storm. To many of Beaton’s circle they would have appeared to be scruffs, oiks, an example of the lower orders getting above themselves.

But Beaton himself, despite being so often accused of snobbery,  was impressed. He once described Jagger as possessing “ an inborn elegance” while Hockney, who had the added disadvantage of not only being working class but Northern, had “the sophistication of the pure at heart”. 

The exhibition concludes with some late, poignant portraits of Ralph Richardson and Louise Nevelson and a recumbent Bianca Jagger photographed in the conservatory of Beaton’s Wiltshire home Reddish. It is interesting to note that until recently the house was owned by Toyah Wilcox and her husband, the  Wimborne-raised rock guitar hero Robert Fripp. Meanwhile Beaton’s previous residence Ashcombe House, on the Dorset/Wiltshire border near Cranborne, was bought by Madonna. One feels he would have loved the idea of his old homes being occupied by a new generation of creative movers and shakers. The spirit of Beaton obviously lives on.

*Cecil Beaton: Portraits runs at London’s National Portrait Gallery until May 31. The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue with a foreword by Sir Roy Strong and an essay by Peter Conrad. It costs £35 harback.

© Jeremy Miles 2022