Cecil Beaton


Cecil Beaton

Beginning his career in photography by designing book covers, Cecil Beaton was picked up by Vogue in 1927 where he produced some of the most influential fashion and portrait photography of the 1930s. Beaton’s signature photographs of the British aristocracy and socialites were theatrical and decadent. With a career spanning fifty years, Beaton photographed celebrities from Edith Sitwell to the Rolling Stones. Beaton has had a huge influential effect on contemporary photography, influencing the works of David Bailey and Mario Testino. Born on 14 January 1904 in Hampstead, Beaton was educated, in part, at St Cyprian’s School in Eastbourne alongside Henry Longhurst and Cyril Connolly. Taught the basics of photography by his nanny, Beaton went on to study history, art and architecture at Cambridge. He learned the profession of photography under Paul Tanqueray before setting up his own studio in the late twenties. Beaton’s photographs of close friend Stephen Tennant and his social circle in those early days are thought to embody the spirit of the ‘bright young things’. Magazine photographers of the 1910s and 1920s; E.O. Beaton, Edward Steichen and Baron de Meyer influenced Beaton’s modernist style. Beaton continued his career as staff photographer for Vanity Fair and photographed Queen Elizabeth and Duke and Duchess of Windsor at their wedding. However, diary entries written by Beaton were more critical of his subjects, exposing Elizabeth Taylor as “a great thick revolting mass of femininity”. During the Second World War, assigned as a photographer by the Ministry of Information, Beaton captured one of the most enduring war photographs of three-year-old blitz victim Eileen Dunne in 1940. Beaton went on to spend a large portion of his career designing stage and film costumes and sets, notably the iconic costumes in My Fair Lady (1964). The costumes immortalised by Audrey Hepburn in the film version of My Fair Lady led to Beaton winning an Academy Award for costume design. Beaton reinvented his portrait style in the later years of his career; working through the 1960s with Mick Jagger and David Hockney.

Beaton received a knighthood in 1972 but suffered from a stroke two years later, limiting his ability to work. Worried about his financial security, Beaton gave his archives to Sotheby’s auction house where all his photographs, excluding those of the Royal Family and a few held by Vogue, were auctioned off up until 1980. Beaton died in his sleep at his home in Wiltshire in January 1980. Beaton was described by Time Magazine in 1931 as “one of those sensitive, talented, emotional and precocious young men who seem increasingly numerous in Britain. Long and lank, with luxuriant curling eyelashes, he gives an impression of terrific world-weariness for a youth of 25” Beaton was a social climber of the 1930s and 1940s, and was detested by Truman Capote who saw him as a typical overbred Englishman. Unsurprisingly, Beaton’s private life was often in the limelight, having relationships with Greta Garbo and, by his own admission, long-time friend Gary Cooper.

Photograph of Audrey Hepburn

This photograph is a portrait of Audrey Hepburn, clearly in a small bedroom. The light in the photograph appears to come through a window on the opposite wall to Hepburn, which she is facing towards. The shadows across the bed are from the light coming through the window. Hepburn’s face is tilted upwards and so catches the light. Her face is then illuminated against the dark wall of the bedroom. The matching bedspread and headboard of the bed keeps the backdrop simple, and allows the black clothes Hepburn is wearing to stand out from the bed. Hepburn’s pale face is then brought out against the black backdrop. Although Hepburn’s body is in a feline like pose facing away from the camera, her face is directed straight ahead. This creates an intimacy between the viewer and Hepburn. The photograph also has sexual undertones, with Hepburn’s posture in a suggestive position, with a knowing look towards the camera. The photograph can then be considered voyeuristic; with the use of light and shadow as a play between innocence and sexuality. The photograph is taken close to the bed and without use of a flash.

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