Back in 1968 Sir Roy Strong, director of the National Portrait Gallery, enlisted his friend Beaton for the solo exhibition that was the first retrospective of a living photographer in any British National museum. It marked a shift in attitudes towards photography, celebrating it as an art form rather than a means of documentation.
Born in London in 1904, Beaton’s early passion for photography was encouraged by ‘Ninnie’, the family nanny, and he began by photographing his mother and sisters dressed in elaborate costumes against dramatic backgrounds. In 1927 Beaton photographed his friend and patron Stephen Tennant, who was a leading light of the ‘Bright Young Things’, a group of bohemian young aristocrats and socialites in the 1920s and 1930s, renowned for their hedonistic life style. Beaton attended a house party at Stephen’s home Wilsford in 1927 and declared that it was the ‘beginning of a new life’.
In the 1930s many of his photographs were taken at his home Ashcombe, a rural idyll that he created in the English countryside. Guests were invited for exhausting weekends of fun and were encouraged to help themselves from the dressing up box with Beaton often changing his costume several times a day.
During World War II Beaton was employed by the Ministry of Information to record life on the home front and in the arenas of war. He took around 10,000 photographs for them – more than any other single photographer – and all done with one Rolleiflex camera. Arguably one of his most important works, his image of three year old Eileen Dunne, a victim of the bombing, had such poignancy and impact that it made it onto the cover of Life magazine and was said to have been instrumental in persuading America to join the war.
In 1939 Beaton took his first photographs of Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace, the romanticism of the photographs helping raise moral at the outbreak of war. He went on to be the official photographer at Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953 and later at the wedding of Princess Margaret and Anthony Armstrong-Jones.
The war had a maturing effect on Beaton and marked a major shift in direction. In 1947 he bought his new country home Reddish which he described as ‘a real house – not a fantasy, makeshift, pretence like Ashcombe’. His life at Reddish was very different from the pre-war frivolity of his previous home. The fun packed weekends were replaced by a more sedate lifestyle and his photography lost its glitter and props.
Beaton had a lifelong passion for the theatre, inspired by the plays he attended and the actresses he met in his childhood. He directed sets and costumes for 12 films and numerous plays, and his own play The Gainsborough Girls was performed at the Theatre Royal in Brighton in 1951. He first visited Hollywood in 1929 and returned many times over the years to capture the glamour of the big screen stars.
Always insecure about his middle class background and determined to escape what he saw as his mundane upbringing, he used his camera as a calling card to enter and establish himself in a world he was not born into. He counted amongst his friends members of the royal family and the aristocracy, as well as the rich and famous.
The 1968 exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery mixed portraits of celebrities such as Mick Jagger and Twiggy with images of war heroes. It also featured many of the photographer’s royal portraits and was unique in featuring incense, music and themed rooms, then unheard of for a major exhibition. The show proved a massive hit with visitors, who queued around the block to view Beaton’s work.
In 1974 Beaton suffered a severe stroke which paralysed his right arm but through enormous determination he taught himself to draw and write with his left hand and he carried on working up until his death in January 1980, photographing the Paris fashion shows for French Vogue in 1979.
The current Madrid exhibition is another first for Beaton – the photographer’s debut exhibition in Spain. All but three of the photographs that feature come from Sotheby’s Cecil Beaton Studio Archive which was bought from Beaton in 1977. It is a treasure trove of over 100,000 negatives, 10,000 vintage prints and 42 of Beaton’s personal scrapbooks and photograph albums. Since we acquired the archive it has been run as a picture library, lending images for publication in print and on line and also for exhibition worldwide.
Cecil Beaton: Myths of the 20th Century is at the Canal Isabell II Foundation in Madrid from 31 May until 19 August.