Cecil Beaton – Man About Town
Cecil Beaton was known as many things during his lifetime and his numerous talents were varied, but always creative. He had great charm and style, a razor-sharp wit and bitchiness in spades. He turned his hand to photography, costume design, illustrating and writing, remaining a huge influence on the world of photography and fashion.
Cecil Beaton was introduced to photography as a young boy. At three years old he was smitten with a postcard of a beautiful actress of the time, Miss Lily Elsie and began collecting cards of his heroine. He received his first camera at the age of 11 – his nurse taught him to use it and helped him with the processing of negatives and prints. He admired the portraits of actresses and women in society he saw in magazines and used these as his starting point, dressing up and posing his sisters in order to shoot their portraits.
Beaton was born into middle class (his father was a timber merchant) but was ashamed of his background and aspired to a higher class. He entered London society through his sister, who had made her debut, and consequently used these connections to enter the world of fashion. You know the old adage – it’s not what you know but who you know! Beaton was known as a pansy and used this to his advantage by focusing on the women in society, rather than their husbands who were probably uncomfortable with his makeup and effeminate ways.
During the 1920s, Beaton was a member of a socialite group dubbed “The Bright Young Things” by the British press, who held elaborate fancy-dress balls, experimented with drugs and partook in excessive partying and drinking – the early version of Paris Hilton and her hangers-on! The 1920s was a strange time to grow up in – World War I had ended and the era promised good times ahead, raising expectations among the young but without delivering. Art movements such as surrealism and futurism thrived and were seen as a backlash against the war. The radical philosophies of Nihilism – which essentially expounds that life is meaningless – and Dadaism, also increased in popularity. These movements rejected a pro-war society and were a way for artists to express the pain and suffering caused by the war.
Around this time, Beaton started working for Vogue magazine, initially as an illustrator, contributing witty sketches of society figures. He then wrote articles to accompany his sketches on topics such as “The London Season” and “The Fun of Dressing-Up”. Photographing the same society figures lead to his photographic work appearing in Vogue, which continued off and on for over 50 years. He was seen by some as being “the man who could have run Vogue single-handed” as he was a great photographer, writer and sketch artist, as well as having all the right contacts.
In Beaton’s early work, he developed a theatrical style of portraiture using unusual backgrounds of foil or papier-mache. These ideas were influenced by the surrealist artists of the time, including Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau. While working for Vogue, he occasionally received a reprimand about these poses: “At the instigation of Mrs Chase I am writing to suggest that you refrain from posing any more models in the act of ecstatically sniffing flowers or holding blossoms a la Blessed Damozel. We are all weary of these postures and hope you can find some other means of expressing grace or charm or what you will. Leave the flowers as passive elements in the décor. Thank you.” However, he knew what he wanted and that he was right, so he just ignored them and kept going. I’ve often said, it’s easier to ask forgiveness than ask permission, which I think is what Cecil did as well.
He learnt early on that portraiture was all about flattery, so to achieve this he worked relentlessly on retouching. Beaton thought nothing of slicing inches from the subject’s waistline and lifting drooping eyelids and sagging necks, if it contributed to pleasing the subject and paying the bills. He was often heard to say “slice the hips, that sag must go!” around the Vogue offices, so that his subjects would say “The most divine picture – I want twelve more prints”. His portraiture style was also about romanticism, sophistication and elegance – flowers were a favourite prop – which lead to his work with the royal family over many years. It is this aspect of Beaton’s work that I will explore in my own work. I will be using “mature” female models in romantic poses, using flowers and going for a “relaxed-glamour” look, more reminiscent of his later portraits. However, I prefer not to do too much retouching as I rather a more realistic look. David Bailey, one of Beaton’s followers and who later made the documentary Beaton by Bailey said “he had this ability to make people look right in their space. He made them look like they’d sat in that chair forever.” This is what I would like to achieve with my models.
I was initially drawn to Cecil Beaton through his costume designs for My Fair Lady and I have been fascinated by them for many years. I also feel that we have a lot in common – we are both photographers, designers and artists. I also must admit I have made my fair share of bitchy comments! Audrey Hepburn is also an idol of mine and I love the elegant photos Beaton made of her in particular.
Beaton’s long career spanned many decades and world events, which also lead to his changing style as he attempted to keep up with the times: from reflecting the surrealist artists of the early 20th century; to becoming a wartime photographer during World War II; then softening his flamboyant style after the war. He reinvented himself once again during the Swinging Sixties, energised by working with leading popular figures such as Mick Jagger.
Australian Art Review, 2005. Cecil Beaton. [Online]
Available at: http://artreview.com.au/contents/464978713-cecil-beaton
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Davies, L., 2010. How Cecil Beaton captured the world. [Online]
Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/photography/8128794/How-Cecil-Beaton-captured-the-world.html
[Accessed 25 October 2012].
Encyclopedia Britannica, 2012. Sir Cecil Beaton. [Online]
Available at: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/57523/Sir-Cecil-Beaton
[Accessed 3 November 2012].
Ross, J., 2012. Beaton in Vogue. 1st Paperback ed. London: Thames & Hudson.
The Selvedge Yard, 2009. Cecil Beaton the Randy Dandy of Photography & Fashioin. [Online]
Available at: http://theselvedgeyard.wordpress.com/2009/04/18/cecil-beaton-the-randy-dandy-of-photography-fashion/
[Accessed 25 October 2012].