A fashion photographer of legend, Cecil Beaton also made his mark on Hollywood for Oscar-winning production design on Gigi and My Fair Lady where the black and white Edwardian outfits made Eliza Doolittle’s debut at Ascot a seminal fashion moment.
Beaton photographed legends and his diary was a reservoir of secrets. Harshly honest about his subjects, Beaton’s keen eye was critical to a fault. He also wasn’t averse to a lot of photo retouching, the photo-shopping of his era.
He often befriended his subjects, a habit that worked him into the position of unofficial court photographer in 1937. Socialites, royalty, designers, editors and actors flocked to be photographed by him. Many he adored. Others he abhorred.
Literary executor of Beaton’s estate Hugo Vickers, editor of Cecil Beaton: Portraits and Profiles, says, “Many famous people suffer a dip in their reputations over time, but that has never happened to Cecil Beaton.”
Beaton’s magic enhanced the star quality of others and he’d take any opportunity to photograph those who caught his eye. Beaton first saw Leslie Caron dancing in the ballet Devoirs de Vacances and designed the costumes she wore in her breakthrough film Gigi. Discovered by Gene Kelly and brought aboard the filming of An American In Paris, Caron transcended her ballet career, going on to have a long acting career.
Beaton was dazzled by Audrey Hepburn in 1957 and he took great pleasure in dressing the star in 1963 for My Fair Lady (especially pleased as she was normally a Givenchy client). Over two days, he shot 350 frames of her wearing various costumes intended for background actors in the film’s Ascot scene. “It is a rare phenomenon to find a young girl with such inherent ‘star quality’,” he wrote.
Cecil first photographed Gary Cooper, star of films including Love In the Afternoon, in 1929 and socialised in 1931 with Cooper and his future wife, Veronica Balf. “The new hero, the Western cowboy, with agate eyes, huge shoulders, hairy chest, flat cardboard flanks; hipless, with big hands, expressive and sensitive, became the new Adonis.”
Beaton adored Fred Astaire and his sister Adele. He notes during an evening at the theatre in 1924 where The Astaires were performing, “I was bored stiff with the knockabout humour of the rest of the play. It would have been the worst show I’d ever seen in my life if it hadn’t been for the Astaires but I was delirious with happiness all the time either of them are on stage.”
Beaton wasn’t keen on Elizabeth Taylor, asking £5000 to photograph her in 1971. Ultimately, he had to keep Vogue happy as each issue that featured Taylor on the cover sold out. So Beaton dutifully photographed the legendary actress even if the shoot didn’t go swimmingly. “I asked her to hide a shoulder, lean forward, and went forward to this great thick revolving mass of femininity in its rawest and her in position… she wanted compliments. She got none.”
In 1956, Beaton waited an hour and a half at the Ambassador Suite in New York City to photograph Marilyn Monroe. This was the one and only time Cecil was to meet Marilyn, but he gave his session with her a lot of scope. “She romps, she squeals with delight, she leaps on the sofa. She puts a flower stem in her mouth, puffing on a daisy as though it were a cigarette. It is an artless, impromptu, high-spirited infectiously gay performance. It will probably end in tears.”
From the Rat Pack’s Frank Sinatra, to Greta Garbo (with whom Beaton was completely smitten), Vivien Leigh and Lawrence Olivier - with whom he had a personal relationship - to be photographed by Cecil Beaton was a claim to fame in itself. His dedication to personality, celebrity and style remain unsurpassed.
The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive, consisting of over 100,000 negatives and 9,000 vintage prints, is located at Sotheby’s in London and managed by Art Agency Partners. Click here for more information on licensing images and buying prints.
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All quotes © The Literary Executors of the late Sir Cecil Beaton
Cecil Beaton Portraits & Profiles is published by Frances Lincoln Limited and available to buy now.
MAIN IMAGE: ELIZABETH TAYLOR, 1953 BY CECIL BEATON © THE CECIL BEATON STUDIO ARCHIVE AT SOTHEBY’S