Cecil Beaton Photography

by | Books

Cecil Beaton photography will never go out of fashion and his name will always be associated with the very pinnacles of glamour. The usual highs and lows in the careers and reputations of most creatives have never applied to him, even now 35 years after his death. Hardly a year goes by without an exhibition or two, a book or TV documentary on the inimitable Cecil Beaton. Unbelievably his career spanned over nearly six decades and there wasn’t anyone of any prominence that he didn’t photograph.

  • Maria Callas portrait by cecil beaton photography
    Maria Callas, 1957

Of course Cecil Beaton had many strings to his bow. He was a diarist, painter, skilled amateur interior designer and an Academy Award-winning stage and costume designer. But it is as a photographer that he is most celebrated, and indeed he was one of the most outstanding photographers of the 20th century. He was a fashion, portrait and war photographer and is primarily renowned for his images of elegance, glamour and style. Cecil Beaton photographs and Cecil Beaton fashion photography are still instantly recognisable the world over.

One of Cecil Beaton’s great strengths was clearly his visual intelligence. He understood the power of a carefully constructed photographic portrait and the importance of meeting the immediate expectations of both subject and viewer. He didn’t hesitate to manipulate images to make his subject implausibly slimmer and more attractive. He understood that the viewer expected an appropriate context, so he placed monarchs on thrones and actors in sets. These simple but inspired Cecil Beaton photography techniques helped to create the iconic and enduring images. And meeting everyone’s expectations meant that both the subject and the viewer were happy, guaranteeing that he would always be in hot demand.

This visual intelligence extended to his fashion and film work as well as his highly skilled amateur interior designs. The designs of Cecil Beaton’s homes at Ashcombe, Reddish and finally at Pelham Place have been the subject of successful exhibitions in London, and have inspired both interior designers and interior design enthusiasts alike.

“…Rex, the person suffused with effortless charm, so romantic and youthful of appearance, with his bold, ram-like profile and tired eyes, would never grow old…”

Image: Rex Whistler, c.1930 © Cecil Beaton Archive at Sotheby’s

As a peerless social operator, he understood the social and professional advantages of design and context. Writing in his diary as early as October 1925, he recognised:

“One can’t get on at all if one doesn’t have a little glamour about one’s home.”

The life changing power of interior design was clearly understood by Cecil Beaton from an early age. The designs of his various homes were less about creating pleasant environments, than providing carefully constructed sets to enhance his social and professional career.

Hugo Vickers is a great authority on Cecil Beaton and his book ‘​Cecil Beaton – Portraits and Profiles​’​, cleverly brings together Beaton’s photographic and pen portraits taken from his diaries. It is curious that although Beaton’s photography famously flattered the subject, his diaries frequently did quite the opposite, and he was famously described as ‘Malice in Wonderland’ by Jean Cocteau.

Of Audrey Hepburn, Beaton said ‘she is like a portrait by Modigliani where the various distortions are not only interesting in themselves but make a completely satisfying composite’.

Marilyn Monroe ‘romps, she squeals with delight, she leaps on the sofa. It is an artless, impromptu, high-spirited, infectiously gay performance. It will probably end in tears’.

Marlon Brando was ‘pallid as a mushroom, smooth-skinned and scarred, with curved feminine lips and silky hair, he seems as unhealthy as a lame duck. Yet his ram-like profile has the harsh strength of the gutter’.

The chapters are presented chronologically, with sections on Bright Young Things, The War Years, High Society, Hollywood Royalty, and The Peacock Revolution. This beautiful book captures the glamorous worlds of Cecil Beaton through his unforgettable photographs and sharp observations.

  • cecil beaton photography marilyn monroe portrait
    Marilyn Monroe, 1956

“…Stephen Tennant, a golden-haired young man who resembled the youthful Shelley…”

Image: Stephen Tennant dressed as Prince Charming, 1927 © Cecil Beaton Archive at Sotheby’s


edited by Hugo Vickers published by Frances Lincoln, RRP £30

Main Image: Marilyn Monroe, 1956 All images courtesy of the Cecil Beaton Archive at Sotheby’s

To order Cecil Beaton: Portraits and Profiles at insider price, please visit GDC Interiors Journal Book Collection on Amazon


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