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Cecil Beaton: The Authorised Biography
London: Phoenix Press, 2002.
£16.99, 656 pages, ISBN I-84212-613-X.
University of Greenwich
1979 Hugo Vickers was invited to become Cecil Beatons official biographer
and given access to all of Beatons 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
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
of France with Greta Garbo.
Described by his ex-lover Stephen Tennant as a worldly Peter Pan and self-created
genius its probably true to say that Beaton began this process at
Cambridge. The middle-class Hampstead boy who hadnt been born with a silver
spoon in his mouth but, by his own admission, managed to put one there, went
up to St. Johns 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
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 mothers 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 fathers 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
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 wasnt
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 Cecils 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 Waughs 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 [Beatons] 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. Beatons 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
to photograph Queen Elizabeth:
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
my knees shaking rather. It is a great happiness for me Maam.It
is very exciting for me!
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 Beatons photographs
of the blitz and of children in wartime hospitals. Apparently the war changed
Beatons 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 1940a study of abstract form and mechanical
destruction taken in the desertshow 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.
Beatons 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 Beatons 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, its not difficult to conclude that publication was
in the back of his mind. Its 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 Garbos capriciousness
and Beatons perhaps immature attitude towards relationships, and it eventually
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 Margarets 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
Hollywood and had to spend ten months there, but the lavish budget and
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
George Cukor, was strained to say the least, especially with Beaton constantly
taking photographs on set. Beaton was vindicated, however, by winning two
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
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.
began to experiment with wide-angled lenses and psychedelic
lighting, he even tried hashish and whilst taken by the glamour,
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 Londons
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 peacefullyhe didnt 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 Vickerss
biography, though packed with detail, seems almost as ephemeral. Its not
as re-touched a version of Cecils life as some of his photographs were
but its not entirely objective either. It contains many fascinations
and is a brilliant portrayal of a history of glamour but one never really feels
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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