(From Wikipedia, the free
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 the photos.
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
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 patterns.
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.