Beaton was born on 14 January 1904 in Hampstead the son of Ernest Walter Hardy Beaton (1867–1936), a prosperous timber merchant, and his wife Etty Sissons (1872–1962). His grandfather, Walter Hardy Beaton (1841–1904), had founded the family business of Beaton Brothers Timber Merchants and Agents, and his father followed into the business. Ernest Beaton was also an amateur actor and had met his wife, Cecil's mother, when playing the lead in a play. She was the daughter of a Cumbrian blacksmith named Oldcorn who had come to London to visit her married sister. It is through this connection that Cecil is related to the Blessed Father Edward Oldcorne who was involved in the Gunpowder Plot. They had four children — in addition to Cecil there were two daughters Nancy (1909–99) and Baba (1912–73), and another son Reggie (1905–33).
Nancy married Sir Hugh (Smiley Baronets) (1905–90) and Baba married Alec Hambro.
Cecil Beaton was educated at Heath Mount School (where he was bullied by Evelyn Waugh) and St Cyprian's School, Eastbourne, where his artistic talent was quickly recognised. Both Cyril Connolly and Henry Longhurst report in their autobiographies being overwhelmed by the beauty of Beaton's singing at the St Cyprian's school concerts. When Beaton was growing up his Nanny had a Kodak 3A Camera, a popular model which was renowned for being an ideal piece of equipment to learn on. Beaton's nanny began teaching him the basics of photography and developing film. He would often get his sisters and mother to sit for him. When he was sufficiently proficient, he would send the photos off to London society magazines, often writing under a pen name and ‘recommending’ the work of Beaton.
Beaton attended Harrow, and then, despite having little or no interest in academia, moved on to St John's College, Cambridge, and studied history, art and architecture. Beaton continued his photography, and through his university contacts managed to get a portrait sitting with the Duchess of Malfi — actually George "Dadie" Rylands and, as Beaton recalled years later, "It was a slightly out-of-focus snapshot of him as Webster's Duchess of Malfi standing in the sub-aqueous light outside the men's lavatory of the ADC Theatre at Cambridge." The resulting images gave Beaton his first ever piece of published work when Vogue magazine bought and printed the photos.
Beaton left Cambridge without a degree in 1925, but only coped with salaried employment in his father's timber business for eight days. His brother Reggie however entered the business and remained until his death in October 1933.
For fifteen years between 1930 and 1945, Beaton leased Ashcombe House in Wiltshire, where he entertained many notable figures.
In 1948 he bought Reddish House, set in 2.5 acres of gardens, approximately 5 miles to the east in Broad Chalke. Here he transformed the interior, adding rooms on the eastern side, extending the parlour southwards, and introducing many new fittings. Greta Garbo was a visitor. The upper floor had been equipped for illegal cock-fighting at the beginning of the 20th century but Beaton used the cages as wardrobes to store the costumes from his set design of My Fair Lady. He remained at the house until his death in 1980 and is buried in the churchyard. In 1947, he also bought a townhouse at number 8 Pelham Place in London.
Beaton designed book jackets and costumes for charity matinees, learning the professional craft of photography at the studio of Paul Tanqueray, until Vogue took him on regularly in 1927. He also set up his own studio, and one of his earliest clients and, later, best friends was Stephen Tennant; Beaton's photographs of Tennant and his circle are considered some of the best representations of the Bright Young People of the twenties and thirties.
He was a photographer for the British edition of Vogue in 1931 when George Hoyningen-Huene, photographer for the French Vogue traveled to England with his new friend Horst. Horst himself would begin to work for French Vogue in November of that year. The exchange and cross pollination of ideas between this collegial circle of artists across the Channel and the Atlantic gave rise to the look of style and sophistication for which the 1930s are known.
Beaton is best known for his fashion photographs and society portraits. He worked as a staff photographer for Vanity Fair and Vogue in addition to photographing celebrities in Hollywood.
Beaton's first camera was a Kodak 3A folding camera. Over the course of his career, he employed both large format cameras, and smaller Rolleiflex cameras. Beaton was never known as a highly skilled technical photographer, and instead focused on staging a compelling model or scene and looking for the perfect shutter-release moment.
Beaton often photographed the Royal Family for official publication. Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother was his favourite Royal sitter, and he once pocketed her scented hankie as a keepsake from a highly successful shoot. Beaton took the famous wedding pictures of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (wearing an haute couture ensemble by the noted American fashion designer Mainbocher).
The Duke of Windsor (Edward VIII) and Duchess of Windsor on their wedding day, June 3, 1937
Queen Elizabeth II
During the Second World War, Beaton was initially posted to the Ministry of Information and given the task of recording images from the home front. During this assignment he captured one of the most enduring images of British suffering during the war, that of three-year-old Blitz victim Eileen Dunne recovering in hospital, clutching her beloved teddy bear. When the image was published, America had not yet officially joined the war—but splashed across the press in the US, images such as Beaton’s helped push the American public to put pressure on their Government to help Britain in its hour of need.
Beaton had a major influence on and relationship with two other leading lights in British photography, that of Angus McBean and David Bailey. McBean was arguably the best portrait photographer of his era—in the second part of McBean's career (post-war) his work is clearly heavily influenced by Beaton, though arguably McBean was technically far more proficient in his execution. Bailey was also enormously influenced by Beaton when they met while working for British Vogue in the early 1960s, Bailey's stark use of square format (6x6) images bears clear connections to Beaton's own working patterns.
After the war, Beaton tackled the Broadway stage, designing sets, costumes, and lighting for a 1946 revival of Lady Windermere's Fan, in which he also acted.
His most lauded achievement for the stage was the costumes for Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady (1956), which led to two Lerner and Loewe film musicals, Gigi (1958) and My Fair Lady (1964), both of which earned Beaton the Academy Award for Costume Design. He also designed the period costumes for the 1970 film On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.
Additional Broadway credits include The Grass Harp (1952), The Chalk Garden (1955), Saratoga (1959), Tenderloin (1960), and Coco (1969). He is the winner of four Tony Awards.
He also designed the sets and costumes for a production of Puccini’s last opera Turandot, first used at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and then at Covent Garden.
He also designed the academic dress of the University of East Anglia.
Cecil Beaton was also a published and well-known diarist. In his lifetime six volumes of diaries were published, spanning the years 1922–1974. Recently a number of unexpurgated diaries have been published. These differ immensely in places to Beaton's original publications. Fearing libel suits in his own lifetime, it would have been foolhardy for Beaton to have included some of his more frank and incisive observations.
He was made a Knight Bachelor in the New Year Honours 1972.
Two years later he suffered a stroke that would leave him permanently paralysed on the right side of his body. Although he learnt to write and draw with his left hand, and had cameras adapted, Beaton became frustrated by the limitations the stroke had put upon his work. As a result of his stroke, Beaton became anxious about financial security for his old age and, in 1976, entered into negotiations with Philippe Garner, expert-in-charge of photographs at Sotheby's. On behalf of the auction house, Garner acquired Beaton's archive—excluding all portraits of the Royal Family, and the five decades of prints held by Vogue in London, Paris and New York. Garner, who had almost singlehandedly invented the photographic auction, oversaw the archive's preservation and partial dispersal, so that Beaton's only tangible assets, and what he considered his life's work, would ensure him an annual income. The first of five auctions was held in 1977, the last in 1980.
By the end of the 1970s, Beaton's health had faded. In January 1980, he died at Reddish House, his home in Broad Chalke in Wiltshire, at the age of 76.
The great love of his life was the art collector Peter Watson, although they were never lovers. He had relationships with various men. He also had relationships with women, including the actresses Greta Garbo and Coral Browne, and the British socialite Doris, Viscountess Castlerosse.
Burial: All Saints Churchyard, Broad Chalke, Wiltshire, England
Candy Darling and Andy Warhol
Ira Von Furstenberg
Mrs Charles James
Cecil Beaton's costume designs for My Fair Lady added immeasurably to the success of Lerner and Lowe's musical both in New York and London. Set in 1914, Beaton was able to look back on the period of his childhood and to incorporate fashions remembered from relatives, family friends and the picture postcard beauties that he avidly collected. However, the dress he designed for Eliza at the Embassy ball is timeless, and the simplicity and uncluttered line look forward to the 1960s as much as back to pre-1914. The impact of the dress was especially strong as it was first seen not in the ballroom scene, amid many other beautiful dresses, but in the dark, masculine setting of Higgins's batchelor establishment as Eliza descended the wooden staircase to the strains of 'I could have danced all night.' Given to the V&A Museum by the Friends of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Exhibition: Silk Stars of the Theatre Museum (Liberty & Co Department Store 20/09/1982-29/10/1982).
Tiara for the Queen of Transylvania worn by Margaret Halstan in the London production of the musical 'My Fair Lady', Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, 30th April 1958. Based on George Bernard Shaw's play 'Pygmalion', the music for the musical was composed by Frederick Lowe, and the book and lyrics were by Alan Jay Lerner. The production was directed by Moss Hart, the sets were designed by Oliver Smith, and the costumes were designed by Cecil Beaton. The production starred Julie Andrews as Eliza Dolittle and Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins.
This bears a label for Margaret Halstan, who played the Queen throughout most of the London run for My Fair Lady. It differs in scaled from photographs of her in the role, but it is possible that she had more than one made in different weights.
Cecil Beaton: The New York Years by Donald Albrecht
Hardcover: 240 pages
Publisher: Skira Rizzoli (October 11, 2011)
Amazon: Cecil Beaton: The New York Years
The definitive book on the legendary photographer's life in New York City, with many never-before-seen images and reminiscences by his closest friends and confidants. From the 1930s, when he helped revolutionize fashion journalism, through the 1960s, when he launched headlong into the Pop art era, London-based photographer Cecil Beaton brought to New York City his own perspective--aristocratic, sexually ambiguous, and theatrical. At the same time, New York offered Beaton innumerable opportunities to reinvent himself and his career.
Cecil Beaton: The New York Years features sketches, costumes, set designs, previously unpublished letters, and over 220 photographs and drawings, many in color and never seen before. This volume documents Beaton's most influential relationships with quintessential figures of the New York art scene, including Greta Garbo, his female confidant and muse, and Andy Warhol. Richly illustrated, Cecil Beaton is the definitive portfolio chronicling Beaton's stunning career in fashion, portraiture, and the performing arts.
Beaton: Portraits by Terence Pepper
Hardcover: 240 pages
Publisher: Yale University Press (February 9, 2004)
Amazon: Beaton: Portraits
Sir Cecil Beaton (1904--1980) was one of the most renowned photographers of his generation. A major contributor to Vogue and Vanity Fair in Britain, France, and America, Beaton captured for posterity such admired subjects as artists Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, Andy Warhol, and Richard Avedon; actresses Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, and Greta Garbo; statesmen and politicians Winston Churchill and Robert Kennedy; and, of course, Britain's Royal Family. This sumptuously illustrated book--published on the centenary of Beaton's birth--brings together many of his evocative portraits in celebration of his remarkable life and work. Gifted in an extraordinary range of fields, Beaton was noted for his flamboyant sense of style. His portraits, fashion photographs, book jacket designs, war reportage, designs for theater and film, and diaries mark him as one of the first international multi-media artists. This book features an illustrated essay discussing the wide range of the photographer's career as well as a portfolio of 160 beautiful reproductions of his most famous portraits and an extended illustrated chronology. Beaton: Portraits is an exciting and comprehensive look at a tour-de-force photographer and is an essential book for anyone interested in photography, fashion, or twentieth-century style and design.
Beaton in the Sixties: The Cecil Beaton Diaries as He Wrote Them, 1965-1969 by Cecil Beaton
Hardcover: 544 pages
Publisher: Knopf (November 2, 2004)
Amazon: Beaton in the Sixties: The Cecil Beaton Diaries as He Wrote Them, 1965-1969
This second volume of Cecil Beaton’s unexpurgated diaries, from 1965 to 1969, catches this prolific photographer, artist, writer and designer at the height of his powers and at the center of everything. And no wonder–as Oliver Smith, the set designer for My Fair Lady, said, he “had more energy than anyone I’ve ever known.” Hugo Vickers, the author of Beaton’s acclaimed biography, went back to the original manuscripts to find the unedited material in order to sidestep Beaton’s endless retouching and has added, as with the first volume of unexpurgated Beaton, fascinating notes that are as lively as the diary entries themselves.
Here is Beaton around the world, always in the hot spots of the moment: during the “swinging sixties” in London, photographing the Queen, doing fashion shoots for British Vogue, and having lunch with Noël Coward and dinner with Cyril Connolly. He is in Morocco with the Rolling Stones; in the Greek islands for a cruise on Cécile de Rothschild’s yacht with his former lover, Garbo; in New York attending Truman Capote’s Black-and-White Ball; at work on Alan Jay Lerner and André Previn’s musical Coco with Katharine Hepburn and on La Traviata with Anna Moffo at the Met–he is even caught in the first big New York City blackout; he is at a dinner for President Lyndon Johnson and invited for tea and caviar with Jacqueline Onassis. He’s in Mougins to photograph Picasso, and then off to Monaco to see Princess Grace, among many other adventures.
The eccentric English aesthete Stephen Tennant called Beaton “a self-created genius.” Though he came out of the Edwardian era, Beaton was a modern polymath with a ferocious drive to be famous, and these diaries reflect his success at working with the most celebrated and creative figures. Reverential, testy, ebullient and acutely observed, they present us with the fascinating minutiae not only of one life but of the best part of a dazzling decade.
The Unexpurgated Beaton: The Cecil Beaton Diaries As He Wrote Them, 1970-1980
Paperback: 510 pages
Publisher: Carroll & Graf (July 27, 2005)
Amazon: The Unexpurgated Beaton: The Cecil Beaton Diaries As He Wrote Them, 1970-1980
A twentieth-century photographer, artist, writer and designer for more than fifty years, Cecil Beaton was at the center of the worlds of fashion, society, theater and film. This book brings together for the first time the never-before-published diaries from 1970 to 1980 and, unlike the six slim volumes of diaries published during his lifetime, these have been left uniquely unedited. Hugo Vickers, the executor of Beaton’s estate and the author of his acclaimed biography, has added extensive notes that are as lively as the diary entries themselves.
Here is the photographer for British and American Vogue, designer of the sets and costumes for the play and film My Fair Lady and the film Gigi, with a cast of characters from many worlds, at shooting parties in the English countryside, on yachts, at garden parties at Buckingham Palace, at costume balls in Venice, Paris or London.
Beaton began as an outsider and “developed the power to observe, first with his nose pressed up against the glass,” and later from within inner circles. Vickers has said, “His eagle eye missed nothing.” The Unexpurgated Beaton is not only a great read and wicked fun, but also a timeless chronicle of our age.
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