Cecil Beaton

12th January 2020

Oh God, love his work!! Don’t know where to start!!

I do not usually cut and paste lots of quotes preferring to read and research and write a little on my findings. However, Beaton’s work is such an important part of the history of portraiture and quite vast in styles and themes that I have taken some excerpts from the National portrait Gallery, UK, past exhibition blurb. The extracts are below:

Cecil Beaton (1904-1980) is one of the most celebrated British Portrait Photographers of the Twentieth Century and is renowned for his images of elegance, glamour and style. His influence on portrait photography was profound and lives on today in the work of many contemporary photographers including David Bailey and Mario Testino…

Beaton acquired his first camera aged 11…

Beaton received the ultimate establishment seal of approval when he was commissioned by the Royal Family in 1939…

With the outbreak of the Second World War, Beaton devoted himself to his work as an official war photographer…

In 1956 Beaton started work on the costume designs for the first version of My Fair Lady for the American stage with Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison and was to continue with the production in its various forms until his own Oscar-winning work for the film version starring Audrey Hepburn in 1964…

In the 1950s Beaton produced many of his most famous portraits of women including Audrey Hepburn, Maria Callas, Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly and Ingrid Bergman. Male subjects included Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, John Betjeman, Sugar Ray Robinson, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr and Dean Martin…

It is testament to Beaton’s flexibility and skill that he reinvented his photographic style for a new decade. In the 1960s he was revitalised by working with some of the era`s brightest cult figures such as David Hockney, Jean Shrimpton, Rudolf Nureyev and most importantly Mick Jagger. Up until a paralysing stroke in 1974,…

npg.org.uk National Portrait Gallery, London, UK
  • Baba Beaton: a symphony in silver 1925 © Cecil Beaton Archive, Sotheby’s London/Collection National Portrait Gallery
  • Marlene Dietrich 1935, Courtesy Sotheby’s
  • Marilyn Monroe 1956, Courtesy Sotheby’s
  • Twiggy at 8 Pelham Place 1967, Vogue © The Condé Nast Publications Ltd/Courtesy Sotheby’s

As you can see just from the four images above that are taken from The National portrait Gallery, London, UK, website, each image is distinctively different from the next. Beaton develops his style continuously and I find his work very appealing in many different ways. I have written a list of qualities that his work emulate, in no particular order these are:

  • Elegance
  • Sophistication
  • Beauty
  • Cinematic
  • Theatrical
  • Imaginative
  • Capturing personality
  • Creative
  • Artistic
  • Era defining

You could say he is a master of all trades, my eyes do not know where to fix themselves on the Google image search and that is saying something!

Due to the fact there are so many photographs and so many different styles of Beaton, I am going to search the internet for specific images that have caught my eye, which may or may, not come from one particular area or genre.

One website that has a various selection of Beaton’s work on one page is artnet.com. Here you are able to compare styles and genres more easily than surfing through various pages at once.

Below are some chosen images that have caught my eye:

The portraits above are of Edward James a friend of Beaton’s. For me the image is very clever, we have the sitter, a man’s physical body, but he is presented to us behind fabric which is delicate and fragile and which diffuses the harsh lighting. The two contrast with each other. James becomes semi-hidden, a mystery to be unveiled and the image invites us to look closer at James to try to decipher the portrait clearly without the fabric, to use our imaginations.

In one shot James looks straight at the viewer and the second he is looking out of the picture frame. The backlighting gives the viewer a sense of abstractness making the image of James a piece of artwork and the shadows as equal to the light in the composition.

In the image on the right James holds the frame so he becomes part of the prop and his hands become disjointed as they are not shrouded by the fabric but are a still life in their own right.

I really like the use of the frame, fabric and back lighting because it gives a different and artistic feel to the portrait. The frame idea is used so much these days that it has become a style in its own right, I am wondering if this is where the style originated?

The fabric used as a shroud is brilliant when juxtaposed with the backlighting. It creates very striking shadows in different tones and within different parts of the composition, for example on the front of the sitters face and body their is the darkest shadow and then their is a lighter one that seems to grow out of the sitter like a demon in a horror film.

This creative technique definitely is worth me looking into and using with my conceptual photography to do with hiding. I have read that he uses not only fabric within his creative works but other unusual backgrounds such as cellophane, silver foil and paper mâché which he made complex sets with which gave his images a sense of Surrealism.

Below – Titles of photographs above taken from The British Journal of photography website:

  • Merle Oberon wearing a pearl headdress designed by Cecil Beaton and costume by Oliver Messel, photograph by Cecil Beaton, 1934, courtesy of The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive, Sotheby’s copy
  • Portrait of the Soapsuds Group by Cecil Beaton, 1930 © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s
  • Daisy Fellowes, wearing her commissioned ‘Collier Hindou’ or ‘Tutti Frutti’ Cartier necklace, photograph by Cecil Beaton, 1937. Courtesy of The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive, Sotheby’s copy

The above photographs are taken from The British Journal of Photography online article called ‘Cecil Beaton and more star at the Fashion and Textile Museum‘ by Diane Smyth, 2018.

It is an excellent article that show cases 15 photographs by Beaton and is well worth looking at for the images. It is written to promote a past exhibition: Night and Day: 1930s Fashion and Photographs and Cecil Beaton: Thirty from the 30s – Fashion, Film and Fantasy are on show at The Fashion and Textile Museum, 83 Bermondsey Street, London SE1 3XF from 12 October 2018 – 20 January 2019 www.ftmlondon.org

I have chosen the above three images for different reasons, all three have different wow factors and are stunning.

The first image of Merle Oberon is a close up high contrast portrait. The composition of her hands and head coupled with the background drapes, head wear, rings and make up give that 1930’s film glamour feel. The sultry look of the actress combined with her beauty make you want to hug her and tell her everything is going to be OK. The drapes are made from different materials therefore producing different textures and patterns within the composition. The jewellery and head gear is big, powerful and glitzy providing a contrast to the darkness of the portrait with its darkness of make-up, hair and clothes.

The second portrait which is of the Soapsuds – Baba Beaton, Wanda Baille-Hamilton and Lady Bridget Poullett – has a theatrical feel to it. They have been surrounded by cellophane which at this time was a new material. Then we have the white synthetic smoothness of the balloons against the backdrop of the softness and beauty of the women. The balloons curves echo that of the women and they are draped in the cellophane which reminds me of a sexy neglige that covers a women’s form. I am thinking that the backdrop is tinfoil by the way the light bounces off it and it is crinkled.

Lastly, the third portrait is of Daisy Fellowes who was a French socialite, novelist and poet, Paris Editor of American Harper’s Bazaar, fashion icon, and an heiress to the Singer sewing machine fortune. This was chosen because it is a two-thirds body shot and uses the arms and hands to add expression to the composition. The material and metal frame which is on the right of the figure is used to frame the body.

Below is an extra shot of Daisy. I chose this image because how Beaton has posed her body, her hands are very expressive and the way they have been placed with the head, frames the famous necklace which is central within the shot.

artier Daisy Fellowes wearing her Tutti Frutti necklace, from the Cartier Collection, 1936 © Cecil Beaton, Courtesy Sotheby’s, London
(image: fromthebygone.wordpress.com From the Bygone, Exploring Arts and Fashions from the Past Two centuries)

Below is an extract from the BBC4 programme, Seven Photographs that Changed Fashion. In this extract photographer Rankin recreates Cecil Beaton’s Hat Box.

Cecil Beaton (left) and Rankin’s Hat Box
(image http://ashleigh-chapman.blogspot.co.uk/2010/03/rankin-seven-photographs-that-changed.html)

Cecil Beaton’s ‘Hat Box’ was created in 1934, using a 10 by 8, large format film camera. To watch how Ruskin recreates the image using Sophie Ellis Bexter as his model, I have included the video extract below. Below the video are quotes from it by Ray Harwood who was an assistant to Beaton.

It was quite a distinction to be photographed by Cecil Beaton. When he came in, it was his studio, his set, his shoot.

Behind him he has a whole studio of assistants, a whole darkroom of processors, tremendous back up.

Ray Harwood Assistant to Cecil Beaton

There are far too many works of Beaton that have caught my eye. They are not the style of portraits that I would consider taking because glamour photography of today hasn’t got that elegant touch, which I think is because everything is so sharp, colourful and dominant to the eye compared to the subtle glamour photography of yesterday year. However, Beaton’s works have elements within the composition that I could use for different types of work and they have given me ideas on how to present sculpture and installation work.

This has been another inspirational research task as the works differentiations from the street photography and conceptual portrait photography that Usually read about, so it has been a very pleasant research time for me.


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