Diarist, dandy, and dresser for the stars – Cecil Beaton combined vaulting ambition and a distinct brand of bonhomie to craft a career few could match. From Greta Garbo to the Queen Mother, 20th century icons clamoured to be immortalised by a Beaton image. To break down his legacy, Mira Mira spoke to Susanna Brown, Curator of Photographs at the V&A Museum, and Robin Muir, Contributing Editor of Vogue and author of Vogue 100: A Century of Style, to create a portrait of the artist.
The resident dandy of his era, like Oscar Wilde before him, Beaton’s post-Cambridge days consisted of assiduous partying and the Vogue assignments that launched his career. His commissions reached their zenith when he was tasked with shooting the Queen Mother, whose innate style was the perfect match for Beaton’s fondness for luxury. She too is a steadfast figure of his now-infamous journals, which proved Beaton was as adept with pen as with brush or lens. His affairs with the likes of Greta Garbo and artist Peter Watson, prominently featured in his diaries, were subject to the incisive and sometimes scornful prose of Beaton’s style – acute and self-aware, they are the more disparaging counterpart to Wilde’s own journals. In them, Marilyn Monroe is deemed, “a make-believe siren”, but the Queen is “meltingly sympathetic”, and Audrey Hepburn has an “inherent star quality”.
The power of a Beaton image, testament to his carefully cultivated social persona and bon vivant personality, was universally acknowledged across the Atlantic from 1930 onwards. “They were a break with the past, as he presented a new monarchy, for a new age”, said Robin Muir of his idealised royal portraiture, which helped reconfigure their public image (following an abdication crisis and during the darkest days of WWII). The sense of novelty is achieved, according to Susanna Brown, by “Beaton’s sense of artifice and theatricality that he brings to the royal portraits, that also draws on the long tradition of patronage portraiture at the same time”. Brown refers to his royal portraits as “the apotheosis of everything he hoped to achieve in his work” and that his friendship with the Queen Mother had been cultivated as “Beaton was quite a polymath… and also a relentless self-publicist”. His portraits of the Queen Mother were especially distinct, Brown claims, as “all the modes of portraiture he employed in Vogue he used in the royal portraiture. The painted backdrops, fabric, flowers, theatrical props, opulent curtains and silks are all there”.
Beaton’s ability to freely switch from Vogue cover to a royal commission was testament to both his flair for glamour, but also to the fact, as Muir claims, “he was a bit of a chameleon”. He spanned the realms of diary, photography, painting, costume design and interior decoration with ease and excellence (by the 1960s, his mantelpiece housed three Oscars and four Tony’s). By turning his lens to the luminaries of his time, Beaton swiftly became one himself, with stars from Joan Crawford to Laurence Olivier asking directly to become the subject of his humanist, tender portraits. As a larger-than-life aesthete, whose style was only surpassed by his personality, he was on first-name basis with Mick Jagger and the Queen Mother alike.
Although he was the one to bring film gods back down to earth with his sympathetic portraits, this approach, a direct contrast to the ‘pin-up’ imagery of the day, was hugely popular. The subjects’ unearthly good looks are a given, but there is a simplicity to them – they are intimate, and intimidating, exclusive and inclusive. Robin Muir attributes this to “an outsider’s eye, viewing these beautiful people with a sense of wonderment”. They contrast starkly with his wartime shots, which elevated him to a different strand of photographer, and condensed the horrors of war into a different and new medium for the masses, bringing the reality of the conflict to the Americans’ doorstep. He was as comfortable depicting these horrors as directing the ornate sets within Buckingham Palace. Beaton was renowned for taking painted backdrops to the Palace regularly for shoots, as though the real-life grandeur would be insufficient for what he was attempting to create.
Beaton’s images continue to seduce, having inspired Mario’s work, among many others. The sheer breadth of his creativity allows for constant re-examination; as Muir attests, “he was much more than a photographer; [he was] a social commentator, an unofficial advisor to Vogue, an illustrator, a painter, a water-colourist, an Oscar-winning set designer… a Renaissance Man”. As the first of his ilk to become a celebrity in his own right, he altered the dynamic for generations to come. It allowed him to more keenly perceive the humanity of his subjects – Elizabeth Taylor in a rare moment of quiet repose, or Gary Cooper relaxing against the soundstage door. As such, fashion photographers and curators alike are keen to resuscitate his oeuvre – Beaton biographies and essays are published yearly, and the V&A has mounted major retrospectives. His work remains accessible within the Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s, which houses over 100,000 negatives, 9,000 vintage prints and 42 scrapbooks from his personal collection. These were transferred by Beaton’s negotiation with Sotheby’s over his private archive in 1977. Muir said that, in his life, “no-one said ‘no’ to Beaton”. In 2017, this still appears to be the case.
Beaton’s legacy is multi-faceted, one in which the details of his grandiose lifestyle almost threaten to overwhelm the skills of his portraiture and photography. As the poster boy for the belle époque, Beaton was the definition of a Renaissance Man – boundless talent, charm that seduced men and women in equal measure, matched by a sharp-tongued wit in journal entries Beaton would be grateful were published after his death. This intertwining of celebrity and photographer was born with Beaton – not before, and not until the likes of Mario, was the person behind the camera as known as those in front of it. Lisa Immordino Vreeland once said of Beaton that “he reached for the stars – and got them”. Today still, Beaton’s star power shines brightly, with no sign of ever going dim.
Photographs © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s (Cecil Beaton, ‘The Bright Young Things’, Wilsford, 1927; Cecil Beaton, ‘The Soapsuds Group’, the Living Posters Ball, 1930)