Cecil Beaton (British, 1904 -1980)

Cecil Beaton, best known for his fashion photographs and society portraits, was one of the pre-eminent British photographers of the twentieth century. He was a true renaissance man who, in addition to photography, achieved great success as a costume and set designer, illustrator, painter and diarist.

Under the patronage of Osbert Sitwell, Beaton held his first exhibition in London in the mid 1920s. He established his own studio and, already exhibiting the theatrical and romantic style he became known for, was much in demand amongst debutantes and high society. Through his friendship with the aristocrat Stephen Tennant, Beaton became one of the ‘Bright, Young Things’. His photographs of the set became some of the defining images of the bohemian and aristocratic world of the 1920s and 30s. A period of time spent building his reputation in America resulted in an exclusive contract with Condé Nast and Beaton went on to work for Vogue and Vanity Fair for many decades.

After returning to London, Beaton was commissioned by the Ministry of Information to document the impact of World War Two, at home and abroad. Despite the wildly different subject matter, Beaton proved himself to be as accomplished a war photographer as he was a society portraitist. His images of the aftermath of German air raids proved to be amongst the most enduring depictions of the home front and were recognised as powerful pieces of visual propaganda. His photograph of three year old Eileen Dunne, bandaged and clutching a teddy bear in hospital, was selected as the September 1940 cover of Life magazine and was credited with rousing support for American intervention in the war across the Atlantic.

Beaton was a favourite with the British royal family, photographing them on numerous occasions and frequently for official portraits. It was Beaton who took the coronation portraits of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 and the famous wedding pictures of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor following the former King Edward VIII”s abdication in 1936.

He was a prolific diarist, publishing six volumes between 1922 and 1974. More recently, the uncensored versions of his writings have been uncovered, revealing a scathing eye for social observation. The original published versions, released during his lifetime, were somewhat more careful in their depiction of the great and the good with whom Beaton mixed.

In addition to his photography, Beaton also garnered critical and public acclaim for his work as a costume, set and lighting designer, achieving great success on Broadway and in Hollywood. He was the recipient of four Tony awards and three Academy Awards for the costume design and art direction of ‘Gigi’ and ‘My Fair Lady’.

Cecil Beaton received a CBE in 1956 and was awarded a knighthood in 1972. He died at his home in Wiltshire in January 1980 aged seventy six.