CECIL BEATON

5 April 2011

[Photo: Beaton by himself]At times in my life I have been overawed with certain artistic figures, almost to the point of being overwhelmed.  Cecil Beaton is like that for me. I once drove across the country to (of all places) Pittenweem to see an exhibition of original Sir Cecil Beaton photographs — it was stunning!

[ Photo: Princess Natalia Paley by Cecil beaton]A few years before this trip, I saw my first ever Cecil Beaton picture — it was of Princess Natalia Paley, and it stopped me in my tracks because of the background — I stared for a while before I realised that it was a bed, a frame of bed springs turned upright! I began to look out for his name.

So I knew some of his work before Pittenweem, but I could only have guessed at the depth and breadth of this man’s creativity!  It was an inspirational show! I immediately bought an SLR with different lenses, filters, a tripod, case, and darkroom equipment and took up photography.  Thanks to Sir Cecil Beaton!

He seemed to have been born at exactly the right time; he managed to photograph just about everyone of any worth since during the entire 20th century.  He caught war, he captured fashion and the movies, celebrities, personalities, stars, sportsmen, artists, writers, poets and musicians — and more besides, even Royalty! I think he took the best ever pictures of Marilyn Monroe, Greta Garbo and Audrey Hepburn.

[ Photo - Monroe by Beaton] [Photo: Garbo by Beaton]

Photography was a troublesome and expensive process, yet Cecil Beaton seemed to have more than his fair share of iconic, classic pictures.  He had a great eye for composition, he seemed to see in monochromatic, to really understand lighting and depth of field. This is no voyeuristic Weegee, no artsy Rodchenko, no Capa war pictures. This is glamour, style, styling, beauty — polished refinement.

I read that he was not overly technical and used only a few cameras, and I like that because I can identify with the relationship to things over the long term.

[Photo: Julie Andrews by Beaton]A well-known snappy dresser, he worked for Vogue and Vanity Fair magazines, but he also did costume design for movies and stage, was a noted set designer, a renowned interior designer and he designed book covers as well as being a noted diarist.

He was in with the jet-setting in crowd himself, and that’s a pretty unique twist in today’s weird paparazzi -v- celebrity world. He knew everyone who was anyone, and they all knew Cecil.

Considering his high profile, his “circle”, and the times in which he lived, Cecil was a well-known and accepted bisexual — he had many affairs with men and women, and a very long and steady non-sexual relationship too (with Peter Watson), even that is kinda cool.

[Photo: Candy Darling and Andy Warhol by Beaton]Naturally he garnered loads of awards and accolades, and I can remember well the day his death was on the news in early 1980, only a few months after I had started taking pictures and developing them myself in my new flat. This really was the end of an era, a real golden era.  No one can ever be able to take pictures of the Queen AND Candy darling with Andy Warhol, who else has managed to capture personalities as diverse as Yul Brynner and Twiggy, or Winston Churchill and Margot Fonteyn?

He took risks, did quirky things (such as the upturned bed springs), used mirrors, smoke, lighting, and all sorts of ad hoc techniques to get the pictures he envisaged.  But mainly, he got the best out of his subjects; they seem to be unposed, disposed, and relaxed — even when he has them in this very strange environment. A real genius, seemingly born to record that period of taste and time.

[Photo: Twiggy by Beaton]

Everyone ought to have a Cecil Beaton coffee table book, for there is nothing better than to flip through a collection of his pictures, to get lost in them, to think about them, to be inspired, but mainly just to appreciate the whole experience of another world long ago.

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One Response to “CECIL BEATON”

  1. Molly Says:

    I had forgotten about Beaton! Thank you for reminding me!! He is long overdue for a revival in appreciation, maybe a retrospective exhibition or some such. Thanks again for a brilliant and personal piece. I trust your photography was improved, and I’d be intrigued to see your work, Dave.

    Regards
    Molly


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