Historical Photographers: Cecil Beaton

Next in the Historical Photographers series is Cecil Beaton, who was a reknowned English fashion, portrait and war photographer, among many other hobbies that made him the photographer that he was. In this article, I will talk about Cecil Beaton, as well as the timeline of events that unfolded up until his death in 1980.

Sir Cecil Walter Hardy Beaton CBE (14th January 1904 – 18th January 1980)

Cecil Beaton was an English fashion, portrait and war photographer. He was also a diarist, a painter, an interior designer and an Academy Award-winning stage and costume designer for films and the theatre. He was named in the International Best Dressed List Hall of Fame in 1970.

Cecil’s Early Life & Education

Cecil Beaton was born on the 14th January 1904 in Hampstead, and was 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 had followed into the business. Ernest Beaton was also an amateur actor, and had met his wife, Cecil’s mother, Esther or Etty, when he was playing the lead in a play. She was the daughter of a Cumbrian blacksmith named Joseph Sissons and had come to London to visit her married sister.

Through his maternal grandmother, Elizabeth Oldcorn, Cecil Beaton was related to the Blessed Father, Edward Oldcorne, who was involved in the Gunpowder Plot. Ernest and Etty Beaton had four children, and in addition to Cecil, there were two daughters; Nancy Elizabeth Louise Hardy Beaton (1909 – 1999, who had married Sir Hugh Smiley) and Barbara Jessica Hardy Beaton (1912 – 1973, known as Baba, and she married Alec Hambro), and another son, Reginald Ernest Hardy Beaton (1905 – 1933).

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, and both Cyril Connolly and Henry Longhurst had reported in their autobiographies that they were overwhelmed by the beauty of Beaton’s singing at the St Cyprian’s school concerts.

When Cecil was growing up, his nanny had a Kodak 3A Camera, which was mainly reknowned for being an ideal piece of equipment that he could learn on, and his nanny began to teach him the basics of photography, as well as developing film. He would often get his sisters and his mother to sit for him, and when he was sufficiently proficient, he would send the photos off to the London society magazines, and would often write under a pen name, as well as ‘recommending’ the work of Beaton.

Cecil Beaton had attended Harrow School, and then, despite the fact that he had little or no interest in academia, he moved on to St John’s College, Cambridge, and studied history, art and architecture. Beaton had continued his photography, and through his university contacts, he had managed to get a portrait that depicted the Duchess of Malfi, which was published in the top fashion magazine, Vogue. It was actually George “Dadie” Rylands – “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.” Cecil Beaton left Cambridge without a degree in 1925.

Cecil Beaton’s Career

After he proved to be hopeless as an office employee in his father’s timber business, Cecil had spent “many lugubrious months” learning to be an office worker with a cement merchant in Holborn. This resulted only in ‘an orgy of photography at weekends’, so he decided to strike out on his own. Under the patronage of Osbert Sitwell, he had put on his first exhibition in the Cooling Gallery, in London. It did cause quite a stir.

By believing that he would meet with greater success on the other side of the Atlantic, Cecil Beaton had decided to leave for New York and had slowly built up a reputation there, and by the time he had left, he had “a contract with Condé Nast Publications to take photographs exclusively for them for several thousand pounds a year for several years to come.”

From 1930 to 1945, Cecil Beaton had leased Ashcombe House in Wiltshire, where he had entertained many notable figures, and in 1947, he had brought Reddish House, which was set in 2.5 acres of gardens, which was approximately 5 miles (8.0 km) to the east in Broad Chalke. Here, he would transform the interior by adding rooms on the eastern side, which would extend the parlour southwards, as well as introducing many new things. Greta Garbo was a visitor.

The upper floor was equipped for illegal cock-fighting at the beginning of the 20th Century, but Cecil had decided to use the cages as wardrobes to store the costumes from his set design of My Fair Lady. Cecil Beaton remained at the house until he passed away in 1980, and was also buried in the churchyard. In 1940, he had also brought a townhouse at No.8 Pelham Place in London.

Cecil’s Photography

Cecil Beaton had designed book jackets and costumes for charity matinees, and had also learned the professional craft of photograph at the studio of Paul Tanqueray, until Vogue had taken him on regularly in 1927. He had 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 were considered some of the best representations of the Bright Young People of the twenties and thirties.

Cecil’s first camera was a Kodak 3A folding camera, and over the course of his career, he had employed both large format cameras, and smaller Rolleiflex cameras. Beaton was never known as a highly skilled technical photographer, but had instead focused on staging a compelling model or scene and looked for the perfect shutter-release moment.

He was a photographer for the British edition of Vogue in 1931, when George Hoyningen-Huene, the photographer for the French Vogue magazine, travelled to England with his new friend Horst. Horst himself would then begin to work for the French Vogue magazine in November of that year. The exchange and cross-pollination of ideas between this collegial circle of artists across the Channel and the Atlantic had given a rise to the look of style and sophistication for which the 1930s were known.

Cecil Beaton was best known for his fashion photographs and society portraits. He had worked as a staff photographer for Vanity Fair & Vogue, in addition to photographing celebrities in Hollywood. However, in 1938, he had inserted ‘some-tiny-but-still-legible anti-Semitic phrases (including the word ‘kike’) into American Vogue at the side of an illustration about New York society. The issue was recalled and reprinted at vast expense, and Beaton was fired.’

Humiliated by his sacking from the American Vogue Magazine, Cecil Beaton had returned to England, where the Queen had recommended him to the Ministry of Information. It was there that he had become one of Britain’s leading war photographers, and was best known for his images of the damage that was caused by the German blitz. With his career being restored by the war, Cecil’s style had sharpened and his range had broadened.

Cecil Beaton had often photographed the Royal Family for official publication. Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother was his favourite royal sitter, for instance, once, he pocketed her scented hankie as a keepsake from a highly successful shoot. Cecil Beaton had taken the famous wedding pictures of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (wearing a haute couture ensemble by the noted American fashion designer, Mainbocher).

During World War II, Cecil Beaton was initially posted to the Ministry of Information and was given the task of recording images from the home front, and it was during this assignment that he had captured one of the most enduring images of the British suffering during the war, that of the 3-year-old Blitz victim, Eileen Dunne, who was recovering in hospital, whilst clutching her beloved teddy bear. When the enduring photograph was published, America hadn’t yet officially joined the war — but splashed across the press in the U.S., images, such as Beaton’s, had helped to push the Americans to put pressure on their government to help Britain in its hour of need.

Cecil Beaton had a major influence on a relationship with two other leading lights in British photography, that of Angus McBean and David Bailey. McBean was arguably one of the best portrait photographers of his era — in the second part of McBean’s career (post-war), his work was clearly heavily influenced by Cecil Beaton, though arguably, McBean was technically far more proficient in his execution. David Bailey was also enormously influenced by Cecil Beaton when they had both met whilst working for the British Vogue Magazine in the early 1960s, and his stark use of the square format images (6 x 6) bears the clear connections to Cecil Beaton’s own working patterns.

Cecil Beaton’s Stage & Film Designs

After the war had ended, Cecil Beaton had tackled the Broadway stage, in which he would design the sets, costumes, and also the lighting for a 1946 revival of Lady Windermere’s Fan, in which he had also acted.

His most lauded achievement for the stage were the costumes for Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady (1956), which had led to two Lerner and Loewe film musicals, Gigi (1958) and again, My Fair Lady (the 1964 version), both of which had earned Cecil Beaton the Academy Award for Costume Design. He had also designed the period film costumes for the 1970 film, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. His additional Broadway credits had included The Grass Harp (1952), The Chalk Garden (1955), Saratoga (1959), Tenderloin (1960) and Coco (1969). He was also the winner of four Tony Awards.

He had also designed the sets and costumes for a production of Puccini’s last Opera, Turandot, which was first used at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and then at Covent Garden. He had also designed the academic dress of the University of East Anglia.

Cecil Beaton’s Diaries

Cecil Beaton was a published and well-known diarist, and in his lifetime, six volumes of his diaries were published, which spanned the years 1922-1974. Most recently, a number of Cecil’s unexpurgated diaries were published, and these differed immensely in places to his original publications. While he had feared libel suits in his own lifetime, it would have ben foolhardy for Cecil Beaton to have included some of his more frank and incisive observations. “In the published diaries, opinions are softened, celebrated figures are hailed as wonders and triumphs, whereas in the originals, Cecil can be as venomous as anyone I have ever read or heard in the most shocking of conversation”, writes Hugo Vickers.

Cecil’s Personal Life & Death

Cecil Beaton had various relationships with men who were often ‘much’ younger, and his last lover was the former Olympic swordsman, Kin Hoitsma. He had also had relationships with women, including the likes of actresses, such as Greta Garbo and Coral Browne, the dancer Adele Astaire, the Greek socialite, Madame Jean Ralli (Lilia), and the British socialite, Doris Castlerosse (1901 – 1942). The great love of his life was the art collector, Peter Watson, although they were never lovers.

He was made a Knight Bachelor in the 1972 New Year Honours.

Two years later, Cecil Beaton had suffered a stroke which had left him permanently paralysed on the right side of his body. Although he had learnt to write and draw with his left hand, as well as having cameras adapted, Cecil Beaton had become frustrated by the limitations that the stroke had put upon his work. As a result of his stroke, Cecil Beaton had become anxious about his financial securities for his old age and, in 1976, had entered into negotiations with Philippe Garner, the expert-in-charge of photographs at Sotheby’s.

On behalf of the auction house, Philippe Garner had acquired Cecil Beaton’s archive — excluding all of the portraits of the Royal Family, and the five decades of prints that were held by Vogue in London, Paris & New York. Philippe Garner, who had almost singlehandedly invented the photographic auction, had overseen the archive’s preservation and partial dispersal, so that Cecil’s only tangible assets, and what he considered his life’s work, would ensure him an annual income. The first of five auctions were held in 1977, with the last auction taking place in 1980.

By the end of the 1970s, Cecil Beaton’s health had faded, and on the 18th January 1980, he passed away at Reddish House, his home in Broad Chalke in Wiltshire, at the age of 76.

Cecil Beaton’s Honours, Awards & Medals

  • Tony Award for Best Costume Design for Quadrille (play) [1955]
  • CBE (1956)
  • Tony Award for Best Costume Design for My Fair Lady (1957)
  • Fellow of the Ancient Monuments Society (1957)
  • Academy Award for Costume Design for Gigi (1958)
  • Tony Award for Best Costume Design for Saratoga (1960)
  • Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur (1960)
  • Academy Award for Best Art Direction for My Fair Lady (1964)
  • Academy Award for Costume Design for My Fair Lady (1964)
  • Honorary Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain (1965)
  • Tony Award for Best Costume Design for Coco (musical) [1970]
  • Knighthood (1972)

Cecil’s Photographic Works

  • Sir William Walton (1926)
  • Stephen Tennant (1927)
  • Lady Diana Cooper (1928)
  • Charles James (designer) (1929)
  • Lillian Gish (1929)
  • Oliver Messel (1929)
  • Lord David Cecil (1930)
  • Lady Georgia Sitwell (1930)
  • Gary Cooper (1931)
  • Molly Fink (1926)
  • Pablo Picasso, (1933)
  • Marlene Dietrich (1935)
  • Salvador Dalí (1936)
  • Natalie Paley (1936)
  • Aldous Huxley (1936)
  • Daisy Fellowes (1937)
  • Helen of Greece and Denmark, Queen Mother of Romania (1937)
  • Queen Sita Devi of Kapurthala (1940)
  • Bomb Victim (Elienn Dunne) [1940]
  • Winston Churchill (1940)
  • Graham Sutherland (1940)
  • Charles de Gaulle (1941)
  • Walter Sickert (1942)
  • Maharani Gayatri Devi, Rajmata of Jaipur (1943)
  • John Pope-Hennessy (1945)
  • Isabel Jeans (1945)
  • Greta Garbo (1946)
  • Yul Brynner (1946)
  • Vivien Leigh (1947)
  • Marlon Brando (1947)
  • Bobby Henrey (1948)
  • Duchess of Windsor (1951)
  • Vita Sackville-West (1952)
  • C. Z. Guest (1952)
  • Graham Greene (1953)
  • Elizabeth II’s Coronation (1953)
  • Alexis von Rosenberg, Baron de Redé (1953)
  • Elizabeth Taylor (1954)
  • Grace Kelly (1954)
  • Mona von Bismarck (1955)
  • Bernard Berenson (1955)
  • Joan Crawford (1956)
  • Mrs. Charles (Jayne Wrightsman) [1956]
  • Maria Callas (1956)
  • Dame Edith Sitwell (1956)
  • Colin Wilson (1956)
  • Marilyn Monroe (1956)
  • Leslie Caron (1957)
  • Dolores Guinness (1958)
  • Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon (1960)
  • Albert Finney (1961)
  • Cristóbal Balenciaga (1962)
  • Lee Radziwill (1962)
  • Karen Blixen (1962)
  • Rudolf Nureyev (1963)
  • Audrey Hepburn (1964)
  • Margot Fonteyn (1965)
  • Jacqueline Kennedy (1965)
  • Sheridan Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, 5th Marquess of Dufferin and Ava (1965)
  • Jamie Wyeth (1966)
  • Georgia O’Keeffe (1966)
  • Andy Warhol (1967)
  • Twiggy (1967)
  • Mick Jagger (1968)
  • Katharine Hepburn (1969)
  • Barbra Streisand (1969)
  • Gloria Guinness (1970)
  • Hubert de Givenchy (1970)
  • Mae West (1970)
  • David Hockney (1970)
  • Jane Birkin (1971)
  • Marie-Hélène de Rothschild (1971)
  • Marisa Berenson as Luisa Casati (1971)
  • Jacqueline de Ribes (1971)
  • Pauline de Rothschild (1972)
  • Tina Chow (1973)
  • Gilbert & George (1974)
  • Inès de La Fressange (1978)
  • Paloma Picasso (1978)
  • Caroline of Monaco (1978)
  • Olimpia de Rothschild (1978)
  • Dayle Haddon (1979)

Cecil Beaton’s Bibliography

  • “The Book of Beauty” (1930)
  • “Cecil Beaton’s Scrapbook” (1937)
  • “Cecil Beaton’s New York” (1938)
  • My Royal Past (1939)
  • “Air of Glory” (1941)
  • “Winged Squadrons” (1942)
  • Indian Diary and Album (1945/46)
  • Ashcombe: The Story of a Fifteen-Year Lease (1949)
  • Photobiography (1951)
  • Persona Grata (1953)
  • The Glass of Fashion (1954)
  • My Bolivian Aunt: A Memoir (1971)
  • Chinese Diary and Album (1945)
  • Japanese (1959)
  • Ballet
  • Portrait of New York (1948)
  • Self-Portrait with Friends: The Selected Diaries of Cecil Beaton (1926–1974)
  • The Wandering Years; Diaries (1922–1939) [1961]
  • Cecil Beaton’s “The Years Between Diaries” (1939–44)
  • The Strenuous Years, Diaries (1948–55) [1973]
  • The Restless Years: Diaries (1955–63) [1976]
  • The Parting Years: Diaries (1963–74) [1978]
  • The Unexpurgated Beaton: The Cecil Beaton Diaries as He Wrote Them (1970–80)
  • Beaton in the Sixties: The Cecil Beaton Diaries as He Wrote Them (1965–69)
  • Cecil Beaton’s ‘My Fair Lady’ (Diary Excerpts and Costume Sketches) [1966]
  • 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 30 years, and the first exhibition of his works to be held in Australia were held in Bendigo, in Victoria from the 10th December 2005 to the 26th March 2006. In October 2011, the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow had featured an oil portrait that was made by Cecil Beaton of the Rolling Stones Band member, Mick Jagger, whom he had met in the 1960s. The painting, which was originally sold at the Le Fevre Gallery 1966 was valued for insurance purposes at £30,000.

An exhibition that celebrated The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, which showed the portraits of Her Majesty by Cecil Beaton, was opened in October 2011 at the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle.

Cecil Beaton: Theatre of War, which was held at the Imperial War Museum in London: a major retrospective of Cecil Beaton’s war photography, was held from the 6th September 2012 to the 1st January 2013.

Cecil Beaton at Home: Ashcombe & Reddish at The Salisbury Museum in Wiltshire, was held from the 23rd May to the 19th September 2014, and was a biographical retrospective that focused on Cecil Beaton’s two Wiltshire houses, which also brought together for the first time, many of his art works, as well as his possessions from both eras of his life. The exhibition had included a full-size reproduction of the murals, as well as a four-poster bed from the Circus Bedroom at Ashcombe, including a section of the drawing room at the Reddish House.

The second Historical Photographer study on Cecil Beaton comes to a remarkable close. Please feel free to feedback what you thought of the article.

Alex Smithson

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