Today’s featured photographer is Cecil Beaton. Yet another name I know nothing about, a fact I hope to have changed this at the end of this post. I plucked his name, like so many others on my ‘ to research’ list from a fashion & fashion designer dictionary. I can’t wait to see what he’s done!
Sir Cecil Walter Hardy Beaton was born on the 14th of January 1904 in Hampstead, England as one of four children. He was educated at Heath Mount School and St Cyprian’s School, Eastbourne, where his artistic talent was quickly recognised.
His Nanny had a Kodak 3A Camera, a popular model which was renowned for being an ideal piece of equipment to learn on. He would often get his sisters and mother to sit for him and 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 go 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. He continued his photography, and through his university contacts managed to get a portrait sitting with the Duchess of Malfi — actually George “Dadie” Rylands. The resulting images gave Beaton his first ever piece of published work when Vogue magazine bought and printed the photos. Beaton left Cambridge without a degree in 1925.
It was at the studio of Paul Tanqueray where Beaton learned to be a professional photographer, until Vogue took him on regularly in 1927. He set sail for America in 1929, set up his own studio and in 1931, and worked for the American and British Vogue until 1936. He recorded images from the front line during the early stages of the Second World War, influencing both Angus McBean and David Bailey with his work and in turn being influenced by them.
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 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 is the winner of four Tony Awards.
In 1972, he was knighted. Two years later he suffered a stroke that would leave him permanently paralyzed on the right side of his body. Although he learned to write and draw with his left hand, and had cameras adapted, Beaton became frustrated by the limitations the stroke had put upon his work. He became anxious about his financial security and agreed to have most of his archive sold by Sotheby’s to ensure him an annual income. Beaton finally died in 1980.
Over the course of his career, he would employ both large format cameras, and smaller Rolleiflex cameras. Never known as a highly skilled technical photographer, Beaton would instead focus on staging a compelling model or scene and looking for the perfect shutter-release moment. He was noted for his use of artificial backdrops of mirrors, cellophane and ruched silver fabrics, against which he would pose his subjects as if they were part of an elaborate tableau.
Work by Cecil Beaton seems to be very well archived by the National Portrait Gallery, so head over to their website to browse more of his work.
My favourite images: