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Cecil Beaton: The Authorised Biography
Hugo Vickers
London: Phoenix Press, 2002.
£16.99, 656 pages, ISBN I-84212-613-X.

Michael Langan
University of Greenwich

In 1979 Hugo Vickers was invited to become Cecil Beaton’s official biographer and given access to all of Beaton’s private papers, letters and 145 volumes of diaries. Two days after he started work Beaton died. Dare one call this fortunate? It meant that Vickers faced none of the usual restrictions on those attempting to give a comprehensive account of a life with their subject looking over a shoulder. The biography took five years to research and was first published in 1985. This, the sixth edition, contains, according to Vickers, ‘a few small additions to the text and index.’

The three pages of acknowledgements contain a remarkable list that acts as a roll call of twentieth-century aristocracy, high society and celebrity: from the Queen Mother to Princess Paul of Yugoslavia, from Peggy Ashcroft to Julie Andrews, and from Noel Coward to Barbara Cartland. This is indicative of the world you plunge yourself into when reading this biography. It is world saturated with snobbery, glamour, wit, style and celebrity scandal. According to Beaton, the diaries he kept on a daily basis for most of his life were his attempt to ‘preserve the fleeting moment like a fly in amber.’ For him, this meant moments such as the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and his holidays in the South of France with Greta Garbo.

Described by his ex-lover Stephen Tennant as a ‘worldly Peter Pan’ and ‘self-created genius’ it’s probably true to say that Beaton began this process at Cambridge. The middle-class Hampstead boy who hadn’t been born with a silver spoon in his mouth but, by his own admission, ‘managed to put one there,’ went up to St. John’s College in 1922 to read art, history and architecture; though reading seemed very low on his list of priorities. This followed an education at Harrow where he enjoyed wearing the uniform of smart suits and top hats and (the less usual) silk pyjamas. Young Beaton, being an extremely beautiful child, also found himself the subject of many crushes and much passionate devotion, though this was mostly unrequited. It was also at Harrow where he began an amateur interest in photography, taking pictures of cows and horses with his box brownie.

At Cambridge Beaton enjoyed early success in putting on plays, though he also acquired a reputation for affected and conceited behaviour. At the same time his family moved to Hyde Park Street. Cecil saw to it that his mother became involved in the social set there, giving dances and appearing in Tatler. In his second year at Cambridge he acquired a studio where he took photographs, painted and designed sets and costumes for student plays. He also took to having his own picture taken and sending it to newspapers. His final year saw him making a dazzling exit; starring in the Cambridge Footlights in a female role, staggering under the weight of bouquets of flowers and failing his exams.

He spent the next years practising photography, much to his mother’s vexation, and establishing himself on the social circuit. Cecil seems to have had an unhealthy obsession with ancient royal ladies at this time and he describes himself as ‘extremely proud’ when given the job of accompanying some dowager princess to her car. One can see in his admiration of these Edwardian relics the germs of his aesthetic. He managed to meet Diaghilev in Venice, though this came to nothing and, when despairing at having to work in his father’s office, he managed to obtain a commission to photograph Edith Sitwell. His breakthrough seemed inevitable. He also met the beautiful Stephen Tennant, the lover of princes and poets, who was to inspire and assist him for many years and who Beaton modelled himself on in many ways. A photograph, taken by Maurice Beck in 1927, shows Beaton and Tennant identically dressed and styled.

Cecil went on to draw illustrations for Vogue, often with accompanying articles and in 1927 he had his first exhibition in Bond Street. He wasn’t always popular with the people whose favour he courted: he could be insultingly waspish and cruel, though he also seems to have inspired great love in others. A minor tabloid scandal ensued when Cecil’s sister Nancy was named as having arrived uninvited at a ball given by Lady Ellesmere. A flurry of letter writing and leader comment ensued before the misunderstanding was smoothed over. Cecil also found himself lampooned in Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall as the photographer David Lennox. All this illustrates the difficulty of attempting to climb socially at this time; when reputations were as fragile as rice paper, the graciousness of manners could be trodden on by the tyranny of etiquette.

Beaton escaped for a while to New York and Vickers chronicles the people he met, drew and photographed there. Cecil himself sent dispatches back to the newspapers in London, not all of which were published. It often seems that people were not as fascinated by Beaton as he was himself. Back in London he published his Book of Beauty; ‘a parody of a sentimental Victorian album,’ in 1930. The first edition sold out and, at the same time, he had his second, successfully received, exhibition. In the summer of that year he met Peter Watson, who Truman Capote described as ‘the only great love of [Beaton’s] life, the only thing that absorbed him.’ Cecil became obsessed with Watson for the next four years. They travelled a lot together, often sharing a bed, though they were never lovers. Watson treated him badly and Beaton went once again to America.

He photographed many Hollywood stars; Dietrich, the Marx brothers, Johnny Weissmuller. The one person he was desperate to meet refused at first to see him. Greta Garbo, who Beaton idolised and had written articles about, was worried that he was indiscreet and would talk to the newspapers. When they did finally meet, at a party arranged by mutual friends, they were magnetised by each other. Garbo told him; ‘If I were a young boy I would do such things to you...’ and, according to Beaton, they kissed. She left the next morning.

Back in New York a storm was brewing. Beaton had provided the illustration for an article in Vogue in which he had ‘hidden’ references to Hollywood Jews as ‘Kikes.’ Beaton’s defence was that he was not anti-Jewish but that the drawing ‘contained my subconscious momentary irritation at having seen so many bad Hollywood films.’ It seems as if Beaton was naive in the extreme; that the other-worldliness he had cultivated had made him out of touch. Vickers never really gets to the heart of this incident which lost Beaton his job at Vogue and several commissions from stage and screen productions. So shocked was Cecil by being asked to resign by Conde Nast it took quite some time for him to recover. He left New York and went travelling again, though the seriousness of perceived anti-Semitism was to be brought home to him by the advent of the Second World War.

Beaton spent the war doing voluntary work and taking photographs for the ministry of information, as well as providing publicity shots for the various patriotically inclined British films made by Noel Coward and others. At the very start of the war his lifetime ambition came to fruition. He was invited to Buckingham Palace to photograph Queen Elizabeth:

The face looked very dazzling, white and pink and the complexion flawless, but as a photographer I was worried by the lack of definition in it. […] She was very smiling and easy. Nevertheless I felt myself standing very stiff and my knees shaking rather. “It is a great happiness for me Ma’am.”—“It is very exciting for me!”

The Queen and the photographer got on famously and so began a long and mutually fruitful relationship which saw the small, plump, round-faced monarch reinvented in the manner of Fragonard and Boucher, seated in bowers, surrounded by roses, softened and misted and be-hatted in the most sugary style. For Beaton it guaranteed him access to any party, event or person he could wish.

It is something of a minor revelation though, to see Beaton’s photographs of the blitz and of children in wartime hospitals. Apparently the war changed Beaton’s attitude to both life and the Establishment outside of party hostesses and aged Princesses. He began to take things seriously and such works as the “Patterns of Broken Tanks”, taken in 1940—a study of abstract form and mechanical destruction taken in the desert—show glimpses of the kind of photographer Beaton might have been under different circumstances. As it was, he continued, throughout the war years to design for the stage and screen. Shortly after the war ended, what Beaton described as ‘one of the greatest events in my life’ occurred: he met Garbo again.

Beaton’s relationship with Garbo was the subject of much gossip on both sides of the Atlantic and is one of the most fascinating and eyebrow-raising episodes of this biography. Garbo declared her love for Cecil (something he described, dubiously, as ‘my greatest triumph’) and they even contemplated marriage. Their relationship was a sexual one (much to Beaton’s surprise) but was also, undoubtedly, a meeting of two like minds. Cecil was at great pains to record in the most minute detail, all his meetings and conversations with Garbo and, as Vickers implies, it’s not difficult to conclude that publication was in the back of his mind. It’s also obvious that Beaton was attracted as much to the idea of Garbo as to Greta, the person and she grew to resent this. The relationship was rocky in the least, with Garbo’s capriciousness and Beaton’s perhaps immature attitude towards relationships, and it eventually fizzled out.

Beaton went on to have great triumphs as the designer for the stage production of My Fair Lady, the film of Gigi and as the unofficial royal photographer. He was even asked to photograph Princess Margaret’s marriage to his great rival Antony Armstrong-Jones (now Lord Snowdon). The designs for the film version of My Fair Lady are probably what Beaton will best be remembered for. The experience of working on the film was a mixed one for him: he loathed Hollywood and had to spend ten months there, but the lavish budget and expertise afforded the look of the film meant that Beaton was overwhelmed with the realisation of his ideas. He also adored Audrey Hepburn though his relationship with the director, George Cukor, was strained to say the least, especially with Beaton constantly taking photographs on set. Beaton was vindicated, however, by winning two Oscars.

The swinging sixties saw Beaton entering into the new spirit of fashion and idealism that enlivened London and the world at that time. He photographed Mick Jagger

‘He was a Tarzan of Piero di Cosimo. Lips of a fantastic roundness, body white and almost hairless. He is sexy yet completely sexless. He could nearly be an eunuch. As a model he is a natural.’

He began to experiment with wide-angled lenses and psychedelic lighting, he even tried hashish and whilst taken by the glamour, exoticism and beauty of characters like Jagger, Marianne Faithfull and Robert Fraser, he never felt that he fitted in; mostly because their penchant for drugs ruined any conversation. Beaton hated growing old, though he was never out of fashion, something which consoled him greatly. In 1968 a major retrospective in London’s National Portrait Gallery was a triumph and in 1972 he was knighted. Two years later Cecil suffered a stroke that severely curtailed his working life and he had to sell his archive to ensure a regular income. He did manage to travel to Paris though and took some well-received photographs for French Vogue.

On January 14th, 1980 Cecil Beaton celebrated his seventy-sixth birthday. Three days later he had dinner with an old friend and retired to bed, having trouble with his breathing. A doctor was called during the night and Cecil slipped away peacefully—he didn’t so much die as float up into the ether in the manner of the chiffon he used to great effect in his work. At times Vickers’s biography, though packed with detail, seems almost as ephemeral. It’s not as re-touched a version of Cecil’s life as some of his photographs were but it’s not entirely objective either. It contains many fascinations and is a brilliant portrayal of a history of glamour but one never really feels a sense of Beaton as a three-dimensional figure. In that respect it owes a lot to the style of its subject.


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