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Dazzling photographers – Cecil Beaton

August 4, 2018

Cecil Beaton (Sir Cecil Walter Hardy Beaton CBE, b. 14 January 1904 d.18 January 1980) was the photographer, diarist, painter, costume designer, set designer and above all upper class socialite who was absolutely everywhere and knew everyone who was anyone in the mid-century British fashion world.

Sir Cecil Beaton – photographer, set designer

After our previous blog on Angus McBean it seemed fitting somehow to talk about another famous photographer, Sir Cecil Beaton who was not only a photographer, but an award-winning costume and stage designer, in similar fashion to McBean.


His diaries are a riot to read and frequently cited whenever a snappy quote about a model, fashion designer, or fellow photographer is needed. He knew the British monarchy too and worked for Vogue, Vanity Fair, various Hollywood studios and the British Government.


His body of work is immense, and includes photographs of almost every star you could name between the 1920s and late 1960s. He was also commissioned as a war photographer.


His style influenced many other photographers but wasn’t static, and changed and updated with the times. One thing that they had in common was that they were always glamorous and flattering. His paintings and illustrations were very accomplished and charming.


 Unfortunately, as his diaries show, he was also snobbish, could be caustically rude, and was racist too. So much so that his diaries were originally published in a heavily edited, very bland version, and only recently have they been re-published with much more original material put back in.


Cecil Beaton was born in Hampstead into a well off family with a flair for amateur dramatics. The family business, which his grandfather set up and his father followed into was a timber merchants. His father Ernest met his mother Esther when Ernest was playing the lead onstage and Esther saw him in it. She was from a Cumbrian blacksmithing family and had come to London to visit her married sister.


Cecil was the eldest of four children. His siblings were named Nancy, Barbara, and Reginald. He went to school at Harrow amongst others and then to Cambridge University, which he left without a degree. He was more interested in singing (he had a beautiful voice) and photography.

A Kodak 3A camera and the nanny

He was an artistic child and his talents were soon recognised.He was taught some early photography skills by his nanny who owned a Kodak 3A camera.

He took family portraits to start off including one of his sister, Baba. He then started sending photographs off to London magazines.

Cecil Beaton – Determined to be published

Cecil’s nanny owned a camera and taught him the basics of photography and how to develop film. His sisters and mother sat for him, and he sent the pictures off to London society magazines. Usually in his cover letter he would pretend to be an agent who was recommending this wonderful new talent of Cecil Beaton.


The first photo he had published was in Vogue. They believed it was of the Duchess of Malfi, it was, in fact, a university friend:”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.”

Cecil Beaton – weekend photographer

He studied art, history and architecture at Cambridge and had a portrait published in Vogue while he was still a student. After some futile months doing office work upon graduating in the mid-20s, taking photographs at the weekend, Beaton had his first success with an exhibition at a London Gallery (Cooling).

Cambridge and an exhibition

Leaving Cambridge, he worked in the family business for a while and then in a cement merchant. He took so many photographs at weekend he decided to quit his job to concentrate on that. Shortly afterwards he had his first London exhibition, which was supported by Osbert Sitwell. It made a great impact.


He then designed book jackets, costumes for charity matinees and studied under the photographer Paul Tanqueray. Vogue commissioned him regularly from 1927 onwards and he set up his own studio. Beaton was friends with Stephen Tennant and his circle and they were some of his earliest clients. He took portraits of them, now considered a great record of the “Bright Young Things” of the 1920s and 30s. Their contacts helped to launch his career.

The Look of the 1930s

He swiftly left for American shores and in New York his reputation as a photographer secured him a contract with Conde Naste.He would take photographs exclusively for Conde Nast for several years.


After leaving London for New York, he became so successful that he acquired a contract from Conde Nast for a number of years at several thousand pounds a year – quite a fortune at the time. He was friends with George Hoyningen-Huene and Horst P Horst, and between them they worked for French, British and American Vogue, as well as Vanity Fair, frequently influencing each other and having a large hand in shaping that decade’s elegant, glamorous look. He was known as a photographer who wasn’t actually technically top class, but nevertheless had an eye for staging a photograph compellingly.

Cecil Beaton: Wartime Photographer/RAF. Cecil Beaton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Cecil Beaton: Wartime Photographer/Royal Air Force

Cecil Beaton – Scandal

In 1938 he caused a huge scandal. Commissioned to illustrate an article about New York society for American Vogue, he produced a good drawing, but added in tiny letters sentences containing the word “Kike” to it twice. It wasn’t noticed in the layout stage, and the magazine went to print.


Many readers and reporters confirmed it was perfectly legible to them, the magazine had to be recalled and pulped, and Beaton was fired, although apparently with great regret by Conde Nast. Beaton was interviewed several times over this, insisting he wasn’t anti-Semitic, he had expected it to be caught and erased by the art department, and even that he didn’t know what “Kike” meant.

Cecil Beaton – Five decades of photography

Beaton, like McBean was accomplished in stage and design as well as photography, and left behind a wealth of photographs from over 5 decades of his career.


He captured fashion, celebrities and art, from Marilyn Monroe to the Rolling Stones, Greta Garbo to Wallis Simpson. His photographs include shots of Tallulah Bankhead, Gary Cooper, Marlene Dietrich, Loretta Young, Pablo Picasso, Elsa Schiaparelli, Audrey Hepburn, Jean Cocteau and Coco Chanel.

Set designs, costumes and Academy Awards

He also designed sets and costumes for the Broadway Stage and was in charge of the lighting for Lady Windermere’s Fan in 1946.He created the costumes for My Fair Lady in 1956, the films Gigi in 1958 and My Fair Lady in 1964 leading him to win Academy Award for costume design, he also designed the costumes for On A Clear Day You Can See Forever in 1970.

War photographer and the Royals

As well as the stars of stage and screen he was also commissioned in 1939 to take pictures of the Royal Family.

Cecil Beaton – recommended by the Queen

He didn’t skip a beat but got the Queen of England to recommend him for a job. They were old friends since he’d made so many nice portraits of her and her mother. The job was as war photographer. He mostly specialised in moving and critically praised pictures of the Blitz. This patriotic duty restored his career and reputation.


After the war Cecil Beaton turned to stage, lighting and costume design in the US. He won several Academy Awards and four Tony awards. He was knighted in the 1972 New Year Honours. His work has been shown in several major retrospectives including two at the National Portrait Gallery, one in 1968 and one in 2004.


He was also an official war photographer where his haunting pictures of land girls, Eileen Dunne a 3-year-old blitz survivor, and portraits of the wartime artist Cecil Day-Lewis, Walter Sickert and the composer Benjamin Britten.

Cecil Beaton – His many relationships

Over the years, Beaton had many relationships with both genders. These included the actresses Greta Garbo and Coral Browne, the dancer Adele Astaire, the Greek socialite Madame Jean Ralli, and the British socialite Doris Castlerosse. His last lover was former Olympic fencer and teacher Kinmont Hoitsma.


As he grew older continued working at a furious pace, even when a stroke affected his right side. He had photographic and painting equipment adapted for him, and re-taught himself to work using his left hand. But worry over his future lead to him sell a large part of his archive to provide money for his declining years. He lived at Reddish House (back in the UK) and lived there till his death in 1980. He died at the age of 80 in his British mansion, which had seen so many notable guests and entertaining scandals.

Photographs that inspire the vintage looks we crave

Beaton’s photographs capture the imagination, and like McBean, have given us the inspiration to love vintage, whatever that may mean for the individual, cameras, vintage furnishings or simply vintage fashion.


Those iconic shots of Monroe, Simpson, Dietrich and Twiggy have given many of us that spur to try out the make-up and clothes of the movie stars. It is Hepburn, Monroe and Garbo that photographed so beautifully by Beaton and McBean, make us fall in love with them over and over again