Cecil Beaton

Sir Cecil Walter Hardy Beaton (14 January 1904 – 18 January 1980) was an English fashion and portrait photographer and an Academy Award-winning stage and costume designer for films and the theatre.


Beaton was born in Hampstead the son of Ernest Beaton, a prosperous timber merchant, and his wife Etty Sissons. His grandfather 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 who had come to London to visit her married sister.[1] They had four children - in addition to Cecil there were two daughters Nancy and Baba, and another son Reggie. Cecil Beaton was educated at Heath Mount School and St Cyprian's School, Eastbourne, where his artistic talent was quickly recognized. 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.[2][3] 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.[4]

Beaton went on to 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 Amalfi — 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."[5] The resulting images gave Beaton his first ever piece of published work when Vogue magazine bought and printed the photos.[4]

Beaton left Cambridge without a degree in 1925, but only coped with salaried employment in his father's timber business for eight days.[5] His brother Reggie however entered the business and remained until his death in October 1933.



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.[5] 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 Things" 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.[6]

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.[7] 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 ensemble by the noted fashion designer Mainbocher).

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 USA, images such as Beaton’s helped push the American public to put pressure on their Government to help Britain in its hour of need.[4]

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 Beaton's own working patterns.

Stage and film design


The cover of Cecil Beaton's Fair Lady Beaton's diary of working on the film

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. 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.


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.[8]

Personal life

In 1972, he was knighted. 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 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, at the age of 76.[4]

The great love of his life was the art collector Peter Watson, although they were never lovers. He had relationships with various men, and claimed to have had an affair with the American actor Gary Cooper, who was a close friend of his for many years. He also had relationships with some women, including the actress Greta Garbo and the British socialite Doris, Viscountess Castlerosse. His heterosexual virginity was taken by the American socialite Marjorie Oelrichs.



  • Elizabeth II's Coronation, 1953.
  • Audrey Hepburn, 1964.
  • Bomb Victim, 1940.
  • Dame Edith Sitwell, 1956.
  • Karen Blixen, 1962.
  • Marilyn Monroe, 1956.


  • Ashcombe The Story of a Fifteen-Year Lease,1949
  • Photobiography, 1951
  • Persona Grata, 1953.
  • Indian Diary and Album
  • The glass of fashion
  • My Bolivian aunt: a memoir
  • My royal past
  • Chinese Diary and Album
  • Japanese
  • Ballet
  • Portrait of New York
  • Self-portrait with friends : the selected diaries of Cecil Beaton 1926-1974.
  • The wandering years; diaries, 1922-1939.
  • The years between; diaries 1939-44.
  • The strenuous years, diaries 1948-55.
  • The restless years : diaries, 1955-63.
  • The parting years : diaries, 1963-74.
  • The Unexpurgated Beaton: The Cecil Beaton Diaries as He Wrote Them, 1970-1980.
  • Beaton in the Sixties: The Cecil Beaton Diaries as He Wrote Them, 1965-1969
  • Cecil Beaton's 'Fair Lady', (1966) (diary excerpts and costume sketches)
  • The face of the world : an international scrapbook of people and places.
  • I take great pleasure.
  • Quail in Aspic: the life story of Count Charles Korsetz


Major exhibitions have been held at the National Portrait Gallery in London in 1968 and in 2004.

The first international exhibition in thirty years, and first exhibition of his works to be held in Australia was held in Bendigo, Victoria (Australia) from 10 December 2005 to 26 March 2006.


  • Spencer, Charles (1995). Cecil Beaton Stage and Film Designs. London: Academy Editions. ISBN 1854903985. 
  • Vickers, Hugo (1985). Cecil Beaton. New York: Donald I. Fine. ISBN 1556110219. 
  1. Hugo Vickers Cecil Beaton: The Authorized Biography 1985 Phoenix Press
  2. Connolly, Cyril (1938). Enemies of Promise. London: G.Routledge & sons, ltd.. OCLC 123103671. 
  3. Longhurst, Henry (1971). My Life and Soft Times. London: Cassell. ISBN 0304938491. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 "Cecil Beaton", Fyne Times, 2006. Retrieved on 2008-05-09. 
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Robin Muir. "The Beaton Generation", The Independent, 1 February 2004. Retrieved on 2008-05-09. 
  6. Time writers. "Too, Too Vomitous", Time, 2 February 1931. Retrieved on 2008-05-09. 
  7. V&A Exploring Photography: Sir Cecil Beaton. Victoria and Albert Museum. Retrieved on 2008-05-10.
  8. Hugo Vickers "The Unexpurgated Beaton Diaries" ISBN 0-75381-702-0

Hugo Vickers "The Unexpurgated Beaton Diaries" ISBN 0-75381-702-0

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