Thursday, 3 May 2012


The inspiration for this talk came from a tv documentary I saw on the photographers of the 60s, who, it was suggested, had virutally reinvented the genre. Well, that sounded like complete 'media studies' hyperbole to me and so I wanted to put the work of one of these icons alongside two earlier notables - Cecil Beaton and Norman Parkinson - and establish that modernity is actually the gift of each new generation of photographers and that all new kids on the block take a lot from what their predecessors had to offer. I led the talk with Cecil beaton:

Cecil Beaton ended his life having being knighted by the Queen and as a frequent lunch guest of the Queen Mother. He was the quintessential arbiter of taste and style, a dandy, a bon viveur and entirely the product of his own creation. Not bad perhaps for the son of a rather itinerant timber who traded mostly in railway sleepers.
He is regarded as one of the finest portraitists and designers of the 20th Century and his works are featured in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria & Albert Museum.

In his formative years, Beaton was always destined to be an artist of style and distinction. It was simply in him, but his immersion in the photographic art came about thanks to his Nanny. She was a keen photographer and provided Beaton with his first camera, a Kodak 3A. She would also introduce him to the principles of the dark room and picture development.
From his school, Harrow, and later at Cambridge University he would submit samples of his work to the leading pictorial publications of the day under bogus cover letters from various notables. ‘You should take note of this bright young talent’, his phantom referees would write.

His breakthrough came when a series of pictures of his university chums, very much the bright young things of the 20s, were accepted for publication by Vogue. Over the following years his work would regularly fill their pages and appearances of his work in magazines’ US editions would led to his gaining recognition over there. In time, Hollywood called and he was commissioned to photograph many of the big stars of the time: Marlene Dietrich, Great Garbo, Ingrid Bergman and Orson Welles to name just a few.

In the post-war years he went out of favour somewhat, being regarded as a touch old fashioned, but he very successfully diversified into theatre and costume design winning many awards including four Tony’s and three Academy awards, the triumphant pinnacle of his career being his costumes and design for ‘My Fair Lady’ with Audrey Hepburn.
By the late 60s Beaton was already a cult figure and had became an intimate of the likes of Andy Warhol and Mick Jagger. His work is defined by an assured sense of style, a unique blend of colours and an almost voyeuristic eye as a photographer, aided often by his handheld Rolieflex which allowed him to become intimate with a minimum of photographic paraphernalia.

The following selection of shots show Beaton as a portraitist, as a Royal photographer and as a supreme colourist and designer.

Beaton - The Portraitist, 'Malice in Wonderland'

Portraits: Included here are the likes of Marlene Dietrich, Orson Welles, Ingrid Bergman, Dame Edith Sitwell, Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly and Marilyn Monroe.

Beaton - Photographer to the Royals:

“The telephone rang, “This is the lady-in-waiting speaking. The Queen wants to know if you will photograph her tomorrow afternoon.” At first, I thought it might be a practical joke...but it was no joke. My pleasure and excitement were overwhelming. In choosing me to take her photographs, the Queen made a daring work was still considered revolutionary and unconventional.” (Extract from Cecil Beaton's Diaries)

The prestige of Beaton’s career was very surely fixed by his relationship with the Royal Family. I suppose it made sense. Who better to photograph a queen than a queen?!

  By the time of his first sitting with Queen Elizabeth his stock was very high and he apparently overcame the hurdle of having shot the wedding photographs for the Duke & Duchess of Windsor. The new King and Queen by contrast with that couple were considered seriously dowdy and dull, provincial even, rather than regal. Beaton’s mission therefore was to accord them the grandeur and pizazz of the palaces they occupied.

Meantime, come the War there was the priority to show the Royals as a normal British family in response to the ‘all in it together’ spirit of the time. This was a relationship that continued into the following generation as can be seen in the very intimate, family shots he was responsible for of Queen Elizabeth with her youngest children.

Beaton - The Supreme Colourist & Designer:

We can get a very good insight into Beaton's sense of colour and design with the picture below of his regular suite at Plaza Hotel in New York where he was a much valued guest. Indeed, so much so that the management thought nothing of redecorating his suite according to his personal design and taste.

The room displays a very artful and economical mix of styles. The drapes, the armchairs, the ceramic lamps each stand out in bold dashes of scarlet red and china blue derived from the modern artwork. Meanwhile a baroque mirror and a smart Chippendale coffee table sit easily in the eclectic mix. The overall effect is striking, but harmonious with a scheme that has dash but never overwhelms. Design according to a distinct personality.

And so it was in Beaton's colour photography and designs as can be seem in the following images based on fashion editorials and his theatre designs. Strong colours in rich hues very much reflecting Beaton's painterly style and with a sense of flair and panache.

Beaton - My Fair Lady:

Beaton's designs and costumes for the Broadway musical, My Fair Lady, provided him with perhaps the most prominent and sustained triumph of his career.

As a result of the original staging in 1957 he received a Tony Award and then when the highly successful film version was relased seven years later his costumes and designs took centre stage, most notably in the Ascot Races scene.

Partly informed by his memories of his childhood he threw on to his drawing board dresses, drapes and hats of a lavishness way beyond the original era in a glorious celebration and renaissance of all things Edwardiana.

Even at the fast moving height of those 'Swinging Sixties', Beaton was making very clear that tradition and elegance in design were qualities that would endure and critics and cinemagoers all around the world agreed heartily.

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