anintimateportrait-hero3.jpg
Photographs

A Filmmaker's Tribute to Photographer Cecil Beaton

Some people have more fabulous lives than others – it’s as simple as that. Sir Cecil Beaton (1904–1980), the protean photographer, painter, writer, designer, raconteur and society figure, was lucky to have such a life, which is now the subject of Love, Cecil: A Journey with Cecil Beaton, a documentary directed, produced and written by Lisa Immordino Vreeland, to be released early next year. “Someone once asked me what was my main profession. I wish I knew,” says a voice at the beginning of the film. The voice belongs to actor Rupert Everett, but the words throughout the film are entirely Beaton’s.

The richness of his journey lies at the heart of both Love, Cecil and a book of the same title, also by Vreeland, which is being published this month by Abrams. In addition to Everett’s narration (which uses quotes from Beaton’s missives and books), the film features engrossing contemporary interviews with dozens of his friends and admirers – David Hockney, David Bailey, Penelope Tree, Nicky Haslam and Manolo Blahnik among them – along with rarely seen footage of the man himself and, of course, his remarkable photographs. For its part, the book focuses on the polymath’s less cinematic material, such as drawings, letters and scrapbooks.

anintimateportrait-editorial1.jpg

IN A NEW DOCUMENTARY AND BOOK, LISA IMMORDINO VREELAND EXPLORES
THE WONDERLAND THAT WAS CECIL BEATON’S LIFE.
LISA IMMORDINO VREELAND, NEW YORK, 2017. © COLIN MILLER.

From the outset, Vreeland knew she had to distinguish her effort from those of others, as much has already been written about her subject. “I wanted to hear Beaton’s own voice as much as possible,” she explains. “I wanted my film and my book to feel intimate.” To achieve her ends, she faced a colossal task. “Research,” she sighs. “The sheer amount of his material is astounding.” In addition to reading Beaton’s 38 books, the author-director plowed through his vast archives. Crucial to her work was the Cecil Beaton Studio Archive, which has been under Sotheby’s guardianship since 1977 and consists of 110,000 negatives and 9,000 vintage prints. On her mission, she also visited other primary Beaton repositories, notably in London: the Victoria and Albert Museum, which holds 18,000 photographs and negatives of several generations of the Royal family, as well as the Imperial War Museum, home to 7,000 photographs Beaton took during World War II for the British Ministry of Information. She also spent time at St John’s College, Cambridge, where the trove known as Cecil Beaton’s Papers includes 150 diaries and a voluminous amount of letters.

This correspondence contains notes that Beaton wrote to his numerous acquaintances along with many written to him by his devoted friends, mainly such authors and artists as Truman Capote, T S Eliot, Rex Whistler and Christian Bérard. “These are incredible exchanges between many of the great creative forces of the 20th century,” Vreeland points out, noting the deep mutual affection between Beaton (a notorious snob) and his expansive yet always glamorous circle. A case in point is a letter Audrey Hepburn wrote him in 1955. “Dear CB,” she began, “Ever since I can remember I have always so wanted to be beautiful. Looking at these photographs last night I saw that, for a short time, at least, I am, all because of you.”

anintimateportrait-editorial3b.jpg

CECIL BEATON’S 1936 SELF-PORTRAIT.
©THE CECIL BEATON STUDIO ARCHIVE AT SOTHEBY’S

The interviews Vreeland filmed for her documentary abound with similar sentiments. “Everybody wanted to share stories about Cecil,” she says. A particular delight for Vreeland was her encounter with Hockney, who revealed that while he was still a student at the Royal College of Art in 1960, Beaton paid him £40 for one of his paintings, titled Adhesiveness. This first major sale helped finance Hockney’s first trip to New York the following year. “I interviewed about 180 people, and Hockney is top of the list: he was really generous with his spirit,” says the filmmaker. “It was important for him to talk about Beaton. I felt I was touched by an angel.”

It seems Beaton felt the same way about Hockney. As Vreeland quotes in her book: “We could not be further apart as human beings,” Beaton wrote in his diary, “and yet I find myself at ease with him and stimulated by his enthusiasm. For he has the golden quality of being able to enjoy life…. Life is a delightful wonderland for him.”

anintimateportrait-editorial3a.jpg

CECIL BEATON’S PHOTOGRAPHS OF DAVID HOCKNEY (1965).
©THE CECIL BEATON STUDIO ARCHIVE AT SOTHEBY’S

Life was a wonderland for Beaton too, as Vreeland conveys in both film and book form. “He was creative from the 1920s until he died in 1980. He found a way to stay current in every decade,” she marvels. “His creativity never stopped.” As familiar as she has become with her subject, she remains dazzled by his ability to be so proficient at so many different art forms. “Beaton entered the creative realm with ease, and it is difficult to know where his life in art stopped and his real life began,” she says. “This is what attracted me to him the most: his drive to reinvent the world around him.”

But Beaton is just the latest luminary Vreeland has tackled. Her previous subjects include Peggy Guggenheim and Diana Vreeland, the grandmother of her husband, Alexander, a fashion executive.

"CECIL BEATON FOUND A WAY TO STAY CURRENT IN EVERY DECADE."
—Filmmaker Lisa Vreeland
anintimateportrait-editorial4.jpg

CECIL BEATON’S PHOTOGRAPH OF AUDREY HEPBURN (1960).
©THE CECIL BEATON STUDIO ARCHIVE AT SOTHEBY’S

Born and raised in Milan, where her Italian-American business-executive father had relocated, Vreeland attended the American School and grew up steeped in Italian art. Her local church, Santa Maria delle Grazie, housed Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. After moving to the US to attend Skidmore College, she began her career in New York, at Polo Ralph Lauren’s headquarters, then returned to Milan to open a public relations bureau for the fashion house. It was there that she met her husband, who was then running Polo Ralph Lauren’s global public relations. The pair married in 2000. (Today, with their 15-year-old daughter Olivia, they maintain homes in Manhattan and Bridgehampton, New York.)

After launching several of her own fashion lines (and one for Fabrizio Ferri of Industria), Vreeland changed course, transforming into a documentarian and author. Her first subject was her grandmother-in-law. The legendary fashion oracle had died in 1989, so the two never met, but Lisa was naturally fascinated. “I thought, ‘You know what, I might have access to a lot of people because of my name,’” she recalls. The result was a book (also by Abrams) and a film of the same name, Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel, both of which were released in 2011 to glowing reviews. In 2015, she released Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict. Her next project is a Truman Capote documentary. “I go for people with tough personalities. I wonder what that says about me,” Vreeland laughs. “Peggy Guggenheim was a very hardened character. I really admired the underlying passion she had to build her collection, but she didn’t have the most generous spirit,” she adds. “But not for one moment did I stray from loving Beaton. I was always in awe of him.”
 

James Reginato is writer-at-large of Vanity Fair and author of Great Houses, Modern Aristocrats (Rizzoli).

Love, Cecil: A Journey with Cecil Beatonby Lisa Immordino Vreeland is available from Abrams.

Proceeds from the sale of prints will go to The Old Vic theatre.

We use our own and third party cookies to enable you to navigate around our Site, use its features and engage on social media, and to allow us to perform analytics, remember your preferences, provide services that you have requested and produce content and advertisements tailored to your interests, both on our Site as well as others. For more information, or to learn how to change your cookie or marketing preferences, please see our updated Privacy Policy & Cookie Policy.

By continuing to use our Site, you consent to our use of cookies and to the practices described in our updated Privacy Policy.

Close