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Cecil Beaton Photo

Cecil Beaton

British Photographer, Costume and Set Designer, Painter, Diarist

Born: January 14, 1904 - Hampstead, London, United Kingdom
Died: January 18, 1980 - Broad Chalke, Wiltshire, United Kingdom
Movements and Styles:
Fashion Photography
".. there is always something dramatic about the job of permanently recording the features of a human being, it is the theatre bought to everyday life; the ordinary routine of existence is broken and the tension is heightened .."
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Cecil Beaton Signature
"Photography has provided me with a passport into many fields of interest which would otherwise have remained unknown. It has enabled me to meet, even if only once, a large number of famous people. Many an afternoon I have enjoyed in isolated intimacy with some personage whose path, but for my profession, I might never have crossed. Sometimes I was never to see them again; but photography has also been the means of discovering lifelong friends"
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Cecil Beaton Signature
"I was able to bring out many of my familiar tricks, and also deciphered how easy, in comparison to photographing beautiful women of the world, it is to photograph men. The photographer of men has chosen an easy life."
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Cecil Beaton Signature
"My attitude to women is this - I adore to dance with them and take them to theatres and private views and talk about dresses and plays and women, but I'm really much more fond of men. My friendships with men are much more wonderful than with women. I've never been in love with women and I don't think I ever shall in the way that I have been in love with men"
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Cecil Beaton Signature
"[Greta Garbo] is the only person with glamour. She is flattered and pleased that she is an amazing success but she does not want to meet her fans. Women send orchids to her every day, men telephone on long distance calls to try and hear her voice. She is so casual and dreamy. She doesn't give a damn and the fact that she doesn't give a damn and will not come out of hiding only increases the frenzy and as with me they are almost driven insane with desire to see her and incidentally she gets more publicity in this way than if she were at everyone's beck and call"
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Cecil Beaton Signature
"I soon found I had fallen so much under Picasso's influence that I was seeing the world with eyes other than my own, with Picasso's eyes in fact. I began to realize that many ordinary objects, pieces of cork, metal and paper, even ordinary boxes of matches - yellow, blue and black - which one sees every day, when seen in his company, look as if they are the creation of the master himself"
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Cecil Beaton Signature

Summary of Cecil Beaton

Beaton was one of the foremost photographers of the twentieth century, best known for his elegant and unusual shots of celebrities and royalty. His fascination with glamour and high society continued throughout his life and he was considered a style leader in his own right, known for his easy charm and wit as well as his flamboyance of dress and waspish comments on celebrity figures, a trait that prompted the writer Jean Cocteau to dub him "Malice in Wonderland". He was also a prominent innovator in the relatively new field of fashion photography, an accomplished photojournalist, the winner of two Oscars for his costume design, and a prolific writer publishing numerous texts, including six volumes of his own diaries. Extremely ambitious, Beaton's superb aesthetic eye and flair for the theatrical allowed him to remain relevant over a 50-year career during which he regularly reinvented himself and his style.


  • Beaton excelled at capturing the individual personality of his sitters, presenting them in new ways that brought out elements of their character not seen in other portraits. In doing so, he made them accessible and sympathetic to the wider public, helping to create or reinforce their status as iconic social figures.
  • His fashion photographs were characterized by their decorative appearance and interesting compositions and his earlier images often contained elements of Surrealism. He was particularly known for his use of unusual backgrounds including cellophane, silver foil and papier mâché and these complex sets are clearly rooted in theatrical practice.
  • Beaton utilized his photographic talents during the Second World War to document the British war effort, photographing the lives of normal people as well as the key political players of the era. His images depict a country doing its best to carry on as normal and are infused with a sense of national pride, consequently many were utilized as propaganda to keep morale high during the conflict.
  • Although Beaton dated a number of women including Greta Garbo, he preferred men and he had several prominent gay relationships. This gave him a sense of guilt and shame throughout much of his life and this was a significant driving force in his desire for high achievement, proving his abilities to himself and others. It has also been suggested that Beaton's interpretation of female glamour and male muscularity may have been informed by his sexuality and that this, along with his photo colleges, subsequently influenced the queer visual culture of Pop Art in the 1960s, including artists such as Andy Warhol and David Hockney.

Biography of Cecil Beaton

Cecil Beaton Photo

Sir Cecil Walter Hardy Beaton was born in Hampstead, England to Ernest Beaton, a timber merchant, and Esther Sisson. He was one of four children. The family were middle class and Beaton's interest in the arts was encouraged from a young age. In his biography, Photobiography (1951) Beaton discusses the moment when he first developed an interest in photography, pinpointing an occasion when he was three years old and saw some postcards depicting Lily Elsie, an Edwardian singer and actress. He subsequently made visits to his local stationers to spend his pocket money on postcards of as many famous actresses as he could. His father also brought him theatre magazines and illustrated theatre programmes from America when he travelled on business. Beaton was given his first camera, a Box-Brownie, at the age of 11. His nurse, Alice Collard, (known as 'Ninnie'), a keen amateur photographer, initially helped him to polish his technique and with this assistance, Beaton started to take photographs of his family, often posing his sisters and mother in a manner that emulated Hollywood starlets.

Important Art by Cecil Beaton

Progression of Art

Miss Nancy Beaton as a shooting star

Beaton had a penchant for the theatrical and this can be seen in this photograph of his sister Nancy who models her fancy dress costume for the Galaxy Ball at London's Park Lane Hotel. The dramatic backlighting focuses attention on her face and torso, whilst the sheer, jagged backdrop, alluding to the rocky surface of a star, merges with the skirt of her costume making her part of the star itself. The use of cellophane in the backdrop produces intricate patterns of reflection, allowing her to also embody the luminosity of a star. In his early portraits, Beaton often utilized this technique of wrapping his sitters in beautiful or interesting backdrops and this enabled Beaton to distance them from their real selves and immerse them completely in the photographic world that he had created. Here, Beaton's depiction of a character is so convincing that, without context, Nancy Beaton does not simply adopt a fantasy role, she actually becomes the fantasy character.

Gelatin silver print - The Cecil Beaton studio archive, Sotheby's


White Panama hat, Vogue

In 1934, Beaton was commissioned by Vogue to shoot an image of this hat by Suzy. Beaton fulfilled the request in his trademark style with an image that exudes playfulness. The hat box is positioned centrally within the photograph and out of it emerges a model's disembodied head wearing the hat. By including an incomplete portion of a woman's body Beaton references one of the tropes of the Surrealist Movement and, in doing so, makes his photograph visually distinct from the average fashion image. This differentiation is enhanced by the model's unusually sad expression. In the work, Beaton utilizes the documentary realism of the photographic medium to normalize the inclusion of the surreal elements, creating a new and convincing reality.

In 2009, the image was chosen by Rankin, the British portrait and fashion photographer, as one of seven photographs that changed fashion photography. Rankin stated that Beaton helped "to set the template for fashion photography. Packaging a world of decadent beauty and above all selling a dream" and that he brought to this photograph "his typical wit and elegance so that what she is wearing is secondary to the beauty of the image."


Marlene Dietrich

Here, Beaton depicts Marlene Dietrich in a manner which was in direct contrast to the masculine clothing and androgynous style for which she was known. The delicate lace backdrop, flowers, and Dietrich's feather boa, can all be seen as sensual symbols of traditional femininity. Dietrich's exaggerated body language and the use of theatrical props, jewellery and clothing also make reference to her role as a performer. Mirrors and reflections were a reoccurring theme in Beaton's work and here he plays with the idea, placing Dietrich's face alongside that of a mannequin with a similar hairstyle and eyebrows. The comparison between the two highlights Dietrich's famously pale complexion as well as creating a sense of displacement in the viewer, as unlike a reflection, the two faces look in different directions.

The overall combination of unusual set pieces along with the use of soft focus give a dreamlike effect to the image and this depiction, at once both real and fantastical, corresponds with Beaton's description of Dietrich in his memoir Persona Grata, "From the flat screen Dietrich stormed the senses, looking always tangible, and at the same time untouchable". The combination of beauty and Surrealism showcased in the work can be compared to some of the photographs produced by Man Ray, particularly those depicting Kiki de Montparnasse.

Gelatin silver print - The Cecil Beaton studio archive, Sotheby's

Eileen Dunne, aged three, sits in bed with her doll at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children, after being injured during an air raid on London in September 1940 (1940)

Eileen Dunne, aged three, sits in bed with her doll at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children, after being injured during an air raid on London in September 1940

As a photojournalist for the Ministry of Information, Beaton covered many aspects of the Second World War. This photograph depicts the charmingly wide-eyed Eileen Dunne after she was injured during the Blitz. In his diaries, Beaton documented the moment he took the photograph, stating: "The small girl, with bomb terror in her eyes, was sitting in her bed in hospital, clinging to a rag doll which had survived with her. Her face, so baby-like, had suddenly grown old and pale; and as I approached her bed she looked at me in a trance of trustful misery".

Beaton's composition places a strong focus on the young child's face as opposed to highlighting her injuries. In doing so, he forces the viewer to register the emotional status of the victim and consequently sympathize with her. Beaton's choice to capture the scene from the foot of the bed creates a foreshortening effect so that the bed surrounds the girl, threatening to overwhelm her with its size. This contrast in proportion reminds the observer that this victim is a small child as well as hinting at her fragility and innocence. The photograph was published on the front cover of American LIFE Magazine and its wide distribution and the emotional impact of the image helped to gain American support for the British during the war.

Gelatin silver print - Imperial War Museum collection, London

Two Battle of Britain fighter pilots, Flight Lieutenant Brian Kingcome (left), commanding officer of No. 92 Squadron Royal Air Force and his wingman, Flying Officer Geoffrey Wellum, next to a Supermarine Spitfire at RAF Biggin Hill, Kent (1941)

Two Battle of Britain fighter pilots, Flight Lieutenant Brian Kingcome (left), commanding officer of No. 92 Squadron Royal Air Force and his wingman, Flying Officer Geoffrey Wellum, next to a Supermarine Spitfire at RAF Biggin Hill, Kent

This image of two fighter pilots posing in front of their plane stands out against many other documentary photographs of the period, in that it shows a fleeting moment of normality amongst the horrors of the Second World War. The close framing of the image connects the viewer directly with the men and their relaxed poses and cheerful smiles reinforce their humanity. Beaton often avoided documenting the gory aspect of the war and in this photograph he displays a sense of hope as well as reinforcing the idea of the British stiff upper lip; despite their dangerous and difficult job fighting for their country these young men have remained happy and positive. Images such as this were printed in newspapers and magazines and helped to maintain morale amongst the general public. This particular image also played a role in recruiting men into the Royal Air Force by glamourizing the pilots and placing an emphasis on their friendliness and comradery.

Gelatin silver print - Imperial War Museum collection, London

The western bell towers of St Paul's Cathedral in London seen through an archway after the heavy incendiary raid of 29 December 1940 (1940)

The western bell towers of St Paul's Cathedral in London seen through an archway after the heavy incendiary raid of 29 December 1940

During the Second World War, London was the victim of significant and prolonged bombing, known as the Blitz. This photograph shows the aftermath of a raid and depicts St Paul's Cathedral framed by the remains of a destroyed shop frontage. In his diaries, Beaton discussed the moment that he took the photograph: "It was necessary to squat to get the archway framing the picture. I squatted. A press photographer watched me and, when I gave him a surly look, slunk away. When I returned from photographing another church, he was back squatting and clicking in the same spot I had been. Returning from lunch with my publisher, my morning's pictures still undeveloped in my overcoat pocket, I found the press photographer's picture was already on the front page of the Evening News."

Beaton has taken his typically theatrical approach to this composition and the result feels more like a film set than real life. The arch of the shop frontage draws the eye inward to the center of the image in which St Paul's Cathedral stands tall and triumphant amidst the billowing smoke, undamaged by the raid. In presenting St Paul's in this manner, the iconic building becomes a symbol of resistance and a reminder that hope and faith can triumph over adversity. The work consequently takes on a role of visual propaganda, aligning itself with the idea that the British people should carry on living their lives as normally as possible during the conflict.

Gelatin silver print - Imperial War Museum collection, London


American Fashion: The New Soft Look

One of many of Beaton’s American Vogue commissions, this image forms part of a fashion spread juxtaposing Jackson Pollock paintings with evening gowns by Irene and Henri Bendel. The pictures were taken in the Betty Parson Gallery in New York, famous for promoting the work of abstract artists and the Pollock used as a backdrop in this photographs is Lavender Mist (1950).

Whilst the drapery and ostrich feathers of the dress echo the swirling lines and colors of the painting, the photograph is also full of contradictions. Most prominently, there is conflict between the action and aggressive masculinity of Pollock’s work and the softness and femininity of the evening dress. This tension is mediated by the captions, which integrate the two by describing the paintings as though they were high fashion items, “Jackson Pollock encrusts his interwinding skeins of paint to give that extraordinary effect known as Pollock”. The captions then go on to praise Pollock’s style, placing him within the upper-class intellectual context of the magazine’s target readership, cleverly merging commercial fashion and avant-garde art.

There is also tension between the American painting and European design on display. This, in turn, echoes the conflicted focus of the magazine as an American publication with an emphasis on European lifestyles and fashions. In the post-war period, Paris reasserted its dominance as the fashion capital of the world, but it did not recover its place as the center of the art world. Instead, America became a new center for art going forward. Here, Beaton highlights American innovation alongside the more established French fashion, positioning Pollock and America as the rising talent.

Although this is the first example of Pollock being linked to fashion, his dynamic canvasses have continued to influence haute couture including the more-recent designs of Dolce and Gabbana (2008), Thom Browne (2013), and Raf Simons and Sterling Ruby (2014).

Dye-bleach print


Marilyn Monroe

As Monroe was typically portrayed in a cinematic and glamorous fashion, in this image Beaton sought to reveal a more human side to her. Photographed in a suite at the Ambassador Hotel, New York, Beaton described the shoot: "She romps, she squeals with delight, she leaps on the sofa. She puts a flower stem in her mouth, puffing on a daisy as though it were a cigarette. It is an artless impromptu, high-spirited, infectiously gay performance. It will probably end in tears". The flowers in the background and the loosely clasped carnation in her hand reinforce Monroe's femininity and the fabric of her white dress mirrors the bed sheets around her.

Instead of the trademark smile and sultry poses of many of Monroe's images, here, Beaton presents her on a bed, her shoulders exposed, she gazes at the camera with wide-eyes and parted lips. Both her expression and her attire convey a sense of vulnerability and this is juxtaposed with her perfectly curled hair and precisely applied makeup. The contrast of the two reinforces her separate personas, behind the visual façade and superficiality of Marilyn Monroe, Beaton also manages to capture the fragility of Norma Jean.

Gelatin silver print - The Cecil Beaton studio archive, Sotheby's


Twiggy, Vogue

One of the most iconic models of the 1960s, Twiggy is pictured in Beaton's own house, 8 Pelham Place, London. She stands on top of a plinth, clad in a fashionable orange mini dress designed by John Bates. The color of the dress contrasts with the wall behind and its textured and luxurious appearance is enhanced by the gold highlights on the doors and frames to either side of her. The strong vertical lines of the doorways also mirror and amplify Twiggy's slim form. Beaton has captured the image from below the level of the plinth, meaning the viewer looks up at her, emphasizing her significance within the photograph whilst playing with the idea of size and scale. Her positioning also serves as a literal embodiment of the metaphor to 'put on a pedestal', plinths are traditionally used for the display and appreciation of art, and by placing Twiggy on top of it, this draws parallels between her beauty and that of art.

Vogue © Condé Nast Publications Ltd / Courtesy Sotheby's


Queen Elizabeth II, Buckingham Palace

Beaton took his first photograph of the Queen when she was only 16, and over the years he frequently photographed her and other royals, establishing a collective vision of their lives as a normal family. This helped to rehabilitate the monarchy in the aftermath of the abdication scandal in 1936, making them seem increasingly accessible to the public. Partially inspired by Pietro Angiono's painting of the Queen in 1954, in this image, Beaton depicts her against a plain blue backdrop, wearing a dark Admiral's boat cloak. The backdrop injects contemporaneity into the photograph, and through its simplicity, it draws the eye to the Queen. Her stance and cloak create an image of strength and power and this is contrasted with her thoughtful expressions as she gazes into the distance. Beaton eliminates the regalia of most royal portraits and this lack of ceremonial trappings within the photograph presents the Queen as human, connecting her with her viewer.

C-Type print - Victoria &Albert Museum collections, London

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Content compiled and written by Libby Festorazzi

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kate Stephenson

"Cecil Beaton Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Libby Festorazzi
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kate Stephenson
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First published on 12 Nov 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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