About

Sir Cecil Walter Hardy Beaton was an English fashion and portrait photographer and a stage and costume designer for films and the theatre.

Cecil Beaton was born in London, England on 14th January, 1904, to a society family. He was educated at Heath Mount School and joined St. John's College, Cambridge, in 1922 but left in 1925 without graduating.

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 them in his basement. 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 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. In the 20's, Beaton was something of a star illustrator in British Vogue, but his contribution would soon swing heavily over to photography.

In 1924 he also set up his own studio in London, 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 Things" of the twenties and thirties.

By 1927 his portraits of young ladies showed why they were called the flappers.

The friendship and patronage of the Sitwell family introduced him into artistic and avant-garde circles. His photographs and designs for theatre sets soon led to commissions. When he sailed for New York in 1929, he was already a successful society and fashion photographer.

He was already taking photographs for the British edition of Vogue in 1931 when George Hoyningen-Huene, who was a 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.

He used every possible expressive form. Normally Vogue readers would not be interested in such people, but when drawn by Cecil, the sketch was worthwhile looking at.

In 1934, he drew the Hon. Blanche Arundell and her spotted dog, for Vogue. She was wearing the latest mode. He was a mischievous observer of the beau monde between the two World Wars.

In the same year, he travelled to Paris for Vogue, contributing sketches of gowns made by Elsa Schiaparelli and the house of Worth.

In the mid 1930's, Beaton moved to Hollywood where he took portraits of actresses and designed scenery and costumes for the theatre and films.

He was a prolific illustrator, contributing to numerous magazines in England and the USA. He published several books of observations on fashion and fashionable people, some of which were illustrated with photographic studies and caricatures.

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 sets and 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.

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.

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 McBeans 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 whilst working for British Vogue in the early 1960s, Bailey's stark use of square format (6x6) images bears clear connections to Beatons own working patterns.

In 1972, he received his knighthood, but suffered a major stroke two years later. It took several months of recovery before he realized one side of his body would be permanently paralyzed. Although he learnt to write and draw with his left hand, as well as having all his cameras adapted, Beaton became frustrated by the new 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 to that of an old man. In January 1980, he died during the night at his grand home in Broad Chalke in Wiltshire.

Though primarily homosexual — the great love of his life was the wealthy art collector Peter Watson — he did have relationships with women, including the actress Greta Garbo and socialite Doris Castlerosse. He claimed that his heterosexual virginity was taken by American socialite Marjorie Oelrichs. Beaton also claimed to have had an affair with the American actor Gary Cooper, who was a close friend of his for many years.

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