Cecil Beaton

Cecil Beaton

Sir Cecil Beaton
Cecil Beaton in China during the Second World War
Born Cecil Walter Hardy Beaton
(1904-01-14)14 January 1904
Hampstead, London[1]
Died 18 January 1980(1980-01-18) (aged 76)
Reddish House, Wiltshire
Resting place All Saints Churchyard, Broad Chalke, Wiltshire
Nationality British
Occupation Photographer, designer, socialite, writer
  • Ernest Walter Hardy Beaton
  • Etty Sissons

Sir Cecil Walter Hardy Beaton CBE (14 January 1904 – 18 January 1980) was an English fashion, portrait and war photographer, diarist, painter, interior designer and an Academy Award–winning stage and costume designer for films and the theatre. He was named to the International Best Dressed List Hall of Fame in 1970.[2]


  • Biography 1
    • Career 1.1
      • Photography 1.1.1
      • Stage and film design 1.1.2
    • Diaries 1.2
  • Personal life 2
    • Honours, awards and medals 2.1
  • Work 3
    • Photographs 3.1
    • Bibliography 3.2
    • Exhibitions 3.3
  • See also 4
  • References 5
  • Further reading 6
  • External links 7
    • Archival resources 7.1


Beaton was born on 14 January 1904 in Hampstead, 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 followed into the business. Ernest Beaton was also an amateur actor and had met his wife, Cecil's mother Esther or Etty, when 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.[3] Through his maternal grandmother, Elizabeth Oldcorn, Cecil was related to the Blessed Father Edward Oldcorne who was involved in the Gunpowder Plot. Ernest and Etty Beaton had four children – in addition to Cecil there were two daughters; Nancy Elizabeth Louise Hardy Beaton (1909–99, who married Sir Hugh Smiley) and Barbara Jessica Hardy Beaton (1912–73, known as Baba, she married Alec Hambro), and another son Reginald Ernest Hardy Beaton (1905–33).[4]

A 1932 Standard Rolleiflex, a type of camera used by Beaton

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. 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.[5][6] 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 film. 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.[7]

Beaton attended – "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."[8]

Beaton left Cambridge without a degree in 1925. After proving hopeless as an office employee in his father's timber business, he spent "many lugubrious months" learning to be an office worker with a cement merchant in 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.[16]

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. However, in 1938, he 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.'[17]

Humiliated, Beaton returned to England, where the Queen recommended him to the Ministry of Information. He became one of Britain's leading war photographers, best known for his images of the damage done by the German blitz. His style sharpened and his range broadened, Beaton's career was restored by the war.[18]

Beaton often photographed the Royal Family for official publication.[19] 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 haute couture ensemble by the noted American fashion designer Mainbocher).

Queen Fawzia Fuad Chirine with Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi and their daughter, Princess Shahnaz Pahlavi in Tehran during the Second World War. Photo by Cecil Beaton.

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 3-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 U.S., images such as Beaton’s helped push the Americans to put pressure on their government to help Britain in its hour of need.[7]

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 McBean's 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 while 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

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 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.

He also designed the sets and costumes for a production of Puccini’s last opera Turandot, first used at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and then at Covent Garden.

He also designed the academic dress of the University of East Anglia.[20]


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. "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.[21]

Personal life

He was made a Knight Bachelor in the 1972 New Year Honours.[22]

Reddish House in Broad Chalke

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 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. In January 1980, he died at Reddish House, his home in Broad Chalke in Wiltshire, at the age of 76.[7]

The great love of his life was the art collector Peter Watson, although they were never lovers. He had relationships with various men, often 'much' younger, including former Olympic swordsman Kin Hoitsma.[23] He also had relationships with women, including the actresses Greta Garbo and Coral Browne, the dancer Adele Astaire, and the British socialite Doris Castlerosse.

Honours, awards and medals

Sir Cecil Beaton gravesite at Broad Chalke Churchyard




Bengali women fetching well water with earthenware pots (1944)
  • "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 '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


Prime Minister of Manipur (1944) as his outfit is prepared before the coronation of the new Maharaja Bodh Chandra Sing

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 from 10 December 2005 to 26 March 2006.

In October 2011, the BBC's Antiques Roadshow featured an oil portrait by Beaton of rock star Mick Jagger, whom Beaton meet in the 1960s. The painting, originally sold at the Le Fevre Gallery in 1966, was valued for insurance purposes at £30,000.[24]

An exhibition celebrating The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and showing portraits of Her Majesty by Cecil Beaton, opens in October 2011 at the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle.

Cecil Beaton: Theatre of War at the Imperial War Museum, London: major retrospective of Beaton's war photography, held from 6 September 2012 – 1 January 2013.[25]

Cecil Beaton At Home: Ashcombe & Reddish at The Salisbury Museum, Wiltshire, from 23 May- 19 September 2014, a biographical retrospective focussing on Beaton's two Wiltshire houses, brought together for the first time many art works and possessions from both eras of Beaton's life. The exhibition included a full size reproduction of the murals and four poster bed from the Circus Bedroom at Ashcombe as well as a section of the drawing room at Reddish House.

See also


  1. ^ Foley, Elizabeth; Coates, Beth (2010). Advanced Homework for Grown-ups. Random House.  
  2. ^ Ultimate Style – The Best of the Best Dressed List. 2004. p. 116.  
  3. ^ Vickers, Hugo (1985), Cecil Beaton: The Authorised Biography, Phoenix Press .
  4. ^ According to Sherman's Wife (Stonor Lodge Press, 2012), written by Julia Camoys Stonor, Reggie Beaton, an RAF officer, committed suicide by jumping in front of a train the same night her mother, Jeanne Stonor, later Lady Camoys, threatened to reveal that he was a homosexual unless he paid for her silence.
  5. ^ Connolly, Cyril (1938). Enemies of Promise. London: G Routledge & sons.  
  6. ^ Longhurst, Henry (1971). My Life and Soft Times. London: Cassell.  
  7. ^ a b c "Cecil Beaton". Fyne Times. 2006. Retrieved 2008-05-09. 
  8. ^ Beaton, Cecil (1951). Photobiography. London: Odhams Press, p.34.
  9. ^ Beaton, Cecil (1951). Photobiography. London: Odhams Press, p.40.
  10. ^ Beaton, Cecil (1951). Photobiography. London: Odhams Press, p.56.
  11. ^ Broad Chalke, UK: British History .
  12. ^ Vickers, Hugo (2003). The Unexpurgated Beaton: The Cecil Beaton Diaries as He Wrote Them, 1970–1980. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.  
  13. ^ Broad Chalke, A History of a South Wiltshire Village, its Land & People Over 2,000 years, The People of the Village, 1999 .
  14. ^ Community History of Broad Chalke, Wiltshire Council .
  15. ^ Robin Muir (1 February 2004). "The Beaton Generation". The Independent. Retrieved 2008-05-09. 
  16. ^ "Too, Too Vomitous". Time. 2 February 1931. Retrieved 2008-05-09. 
  17. ^ Simon Doonan, "Cecil Beaton Stateside", Daily Telegraph, 6 November 2011, retrieved 28 August 2012
  18. ^ Richard Holledge, "A Career Restored by War" Wall Street Journal, 29 Nov 2012, p D5
  19. ^ "V&A Exploring Photography: Sir Cecil Beaton". Victoria and Albert Museum. Retrieved 2008-05-10. 
  20. ^ Groves, Nicholas (2005), The Academical Dress of the University of East Anglia,  .
  21. ^ Beaton, Cecil, Vickers, Hugo, ed., The Unexpurgated Beaton Diaries,  .
  22. ^ "Supplement to the London Gazette". London Gazette. 31 December 1971. 
  23. ^ Vickers, Hugo (2002). Cecil Beaton. Phoenix Press.  
  24. ^ Antiques Roadshow, Hever Castle 1, Episode 5 of 28, Series 34
  25. ^ Cecil Beaton: Theatre of War

Further reading

  • Beaton, Cecil Sir & Boddington, Jennie, 1922- & National Gallery of Victoria (1975). Cecil Beaton's camera. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
  • Spencer, Charles (1995). Cecil Beaton Stage and Film Designs. London: Academy Editions.  
  • Vickers, Hugo (1985). Cecil Beaton. New York: Donald I. Fine.  
  • Vickers, Hugo (2003). The Cecil Beaton Diaries, as They Were Written. New York.  

External links

Archival resources

He was a photographer for the British edition of

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.

Portrait of Sir Roy Strong, Director and Secretary of the Victoria and Albert Museum

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.[15] 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 People of the twenties and thirties.



In 1947, he bought Reddish House, set in 2.5 acres of gardens, approximately 5 miles (8.0 km) to the east in Broad Chalke. Here he transformed the interior, adding rooms on the eastern side, extending the parlour southwards, and introducing many new fittings. Greta Garbo was a visitor.[11] The upper floor had been equipped for illegal cock-fighting at the beginning of the 20th century but Beaton used the cages as wardrobes to store the costumes from his set design of My Fair Lady. He remained at the house until his death in 1980 and is buried in the churchyard.[12][13][14] In 1940, he also bought a townhouse at number 8 Pelham Place in London.

From 1930 to 1945, Beaton leased Ashcombe House in Wiltshire, where he entertained many notable figures.

Believing that he would meet with greater success on the other side of the Atlantic, he left for New York and slowly built up a reputation there. By the time he 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."[10]

he put on his first exhibition in the Cooling Gallery, London. It caused quite a stir. Osbert Sitwell Under the patronage of [9]