Cecil Beaton: A photographer with an eye for character

Cecil Beaton stamped his sardonic personality across society’s magazine pages for decades. But it was how he spread his innovative style across a breadth of subject matter that proved he was more than ‘just’ an iconic fashion photographer.Box Brownie

Born in Hampstead, in January, 1904, Beaton’s childhood was suffused with middle-classdom and he was encouraged to have an interest in the arts. It’s no surprise, therefore, that at just the age of three his eye was caught and held by photographs of the glitzy Edwardian entertainers. So much so, in fact, that by eleven he already had quite a collection of postcards and was given his first camera, a Box-Brownie, by his father. Fortuitously, his nanny was a keen amateur and she fuelled his enthusiasm by teaching him some extended basics. Before long, he had his family posing as pseudo Hollywood names.

School was tough on Cecil, though, despite his cohort including people who then went on to make a name for themselves in creative circles. Evelyn Waugh (who’d also been a tyrannical bully to Beaton during his early school days), is one example, and George Orwell another. So at Harrow, not taken with pastimes such as football, he preferred to dress up and head out to capture photos… which rather led him to feel he never quite fitted in.

The blossoming of a photographic career

Beaton attempted to study art, architecture and history at Cambridge, but it clearly wasn’t his thing. Instead, he fed his passion for photography, frequently trying to get images published; and in 1924 he struck gold. Vogue accepted a portrait depicting The Duchess of Malfi (actually a photo of a fellow pal dressed in drag), and it would seem the path to his future had suddenly appeared. He left Cambridge without a degree. And having briefly suffered working for his father, headed off to Venice to find fame and fortune.

Finding his niche

To his disappointment, his trip did not bring forth anything to fuel his hopes. However, it seems that Cecil wasn’t one to be beaten. Upon his return, he avidly networked his contacts in an attempt to open up opportunities, and to his delight found himself accepted into a bohemian group of socialites who were the cast of the Bright Young Things. Beaton was in his element! For they were only too happy to pose and be snapped, and his photos  at long last opened doors to the higher level of society he craved.

Boosted by his growing popularity, he headed to New York and soon found work with Vogue. His job took him all around the world, photographing the rich and famous. And by the 1930s he, along with a couple of close associates, had carved out a unique style for bringing out the personality and character of his sitters through playful aesthetics, whilst still maintaining their glitz.

Overstepping the mark

In 1937 he was appointed Court Photographer to the British Royal Family. However, the next year his career with Vogue was brought to an abrupt halt. An anti-Semitic slur was deemed to have been amalgamated into a collage of society figures, and though he vociferously declared it to simply be a mistake due to tiredness, the smear stuck. Suddenly, his US life began to crumble. No longer was he the darling of New York society, and he returned to England only to have to fight to find work for a good year or so.

Proving his worth

In a strange way, he was saved by the start of the Second World War. The Ministry of Information offered him a job as a photojournalist. And at this point, Cecil began to prove his worth as a photographer. Gone were the artistically styled sets for celebrities, and instead the down-to-earth world of soldiers and workers became his backdrop. It’s true that he also managed to photograph the Queen, but his work took him to dangerous places such as China, and it is during this period of his life that he is considered to have taken some of the most powerful pictures of his career. From fashion to a war-torn world; he could photograph it all.

However, all had not been left behind. His success in photojournalism once again opened the doors to Vogue, and his images began to appear once more in both the British and American publications.

Stepping into high society

The next key turning point occurred towards the end of the war, when Vogue then commissioned him to photograph a number of top celebrities. Enter Greta Garbo into his life; photographically and romantically. Interestingly, though Cecil dated both men and women – and he was really known more for his tendency towards male connections – Garbo is considered by many to have been the love of his life. And despite a later rift that formed between them, they did remain in contact for the rest of his days.

But by now he was well ensconced as THE high society photographer, a point no better illustrated than by the fact he was  commissioned to photograph the day of the birth of Prince Charles in 1948. And it was around this time that he took steps to broaden his career too. Fascinated with costumes and set design, he spent time improving his painting and drawing, plus he worked on stage projects too. All this effort, along with the contacts he’d made no doubt, culminated in him working on the highly successful stage version of My Fair Lady. And he then went on to do the same for the film production in 1964, which earned him an Oscar for his efforts.

More to Cecil than met the eye

His reputation had clearly grown by this point, but it wasn’t just for his creative work; his cutting wit had found its place in people’s psyche as well. Of some stars, he was very complimentary; Audrey Hepburn, for example. But others didn’t get off so lightly. He was unimpressed with Katherine Hepburn’s voice and demeanour, and he was most certainly not taken with Grace Kelly’s face. However, it was Elizabeth Taylor who came most under fire, summarising his thoughts on her and her husband, Richard Burton, thus: “I have always loathed the Burtons for their vulgarity, commonness and crass bad taste, she combining the worst of U.S. and English taste… I treated her with authority, told her not to powder her nose, to come in front of the cameras with it shining. She wanted compliments. She got none. ‘Don’t touch me like that,’ she whined! Her breasts, hanging and huge, were like those of a peasant woman suckling her young in Peru. On her fat, coarse hands more of the biggest diamonds and emeralds… And this was the woman who is the greatest ‘draw’. In comparison everyone else looked ladylike.”

However, it seems his acerbic observations we mostly just put down to artistic temperament, for his popularity didn’t wane. His work was highly celebrated, exhibitions were devoted to him, and to top it all he received a knighthood. As a testament to his determination, he suffered a debilitating stroke in 1974, losing much of his right side, but he learned to paint and photograph with his left hand and continued to work for Vogue. His last commission was to photograph Princess Michael of Kent in 1979. The following year, he passed away quietly.

An extraordinary life well lived

Beaton’s life had been pretty epic. He photographed, wrote, designed, and socialised. He bucked all the trends: managing his homosexuality extremely well but giving his heart to Greta Garbo; building a following for his take on fashion yet successfully photo-journaling the war; and enjoying reverence for his charisma and wit, whilst being tolerated for his caustic charm. Cecil Beaton was the epitome of the energetic power that was just waiting to explode in the 1930s and 40s. Harness it he did, but very much in his own idiosyncratic way. Jean Cocteau dubbed him “Malice in Wonderland”; the perfect juxtaposition for the time.