Portraits and Profiles
Edited by Hugo Vickers
London: Frances Lincoln, 2014
Hardcover. ISBN 978-0711235502. 288 p. £30.00
Reviewed by Antoine Capet
Université de Rouen
There can be two radically-opposed reactions to a new book on Cecil Beaton (1904-1980): the blasé one, arguing that one has already seen it all and that little if anything remains to be said of the man and his work – but also the enthusiastic one, with aficionados rejoicing that you cannot have too much of a good thing.(1) In the ongoing climate of debunking of great figures, Hugh Vickers takes the contrary tack and unabashedly presents the subject of so many of his previous publications – Cecil Beaton and his photography – in a definitely laudatory light. Who would complain? Even the blasé brigade will undoubtedly find photographs which they did not know.
The ‘format’ of the book is both simple and effective: in most of the volume, we have a full-page high-quality photograph on the left, with a double text on the right. The top of page (roughly two thirds, as a rule) reproduces passages from Cecil Beaton’s own writings on his sitter (Vickers reminds us in his short, but very helpful introduction that Beaton often took notes immediately after the sitting), while the lower third, by Vickers, provides context and biographical information.
Classically, the volume is divided into eight more or less chronological sections, each beginning with an introductory text: The Roaring Twenties, Hollywood, High Society / Haute Couture, The War Years, Artists, Writers, The Stage, The Peacock Revolution. The last title is somewhat puzzling for those like the present reviewer who are not really familiar with ‘Pop Culture’, and Vickers must have been aware of the fact since he starts his introductory remarks with an explanation :
The Peacock Revolution was a phrase coined by Michael Wishart, an artist much admired by Cecil who owned two of his paintings. Wishart relished the new generation who wore yellow velvet trousers, tom red shirts and frayed jackets. They were the Rolling Stones, Marianne Faithfull, and a host of others pushing the boundaries in all directions, experimenting with drugs, advocating free love, singing the best songs heard in generations, flouting morality and all conventional behaviour, but with their own decided rules of what was acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.
Of course, Vickers adds, ‘Cecil was naturally fascinated by these emerging youngsters’ . The Rolling Stones are indeed given pride of place in this section, with the photographs of several of their members taken in Marrakech in 1967. Lesser-known figures are also featured, like Kin Hoitsma (1934-2013), but we have the famous colour photograph of Twiggy (‘a cosmic Ariel’ – Beaton ) on a Grecian plinth in 1967 and a superb high-angle picture of David Hockney with signature round glasses sitting on a wicker chair in 1970.
It is evidently impossible to list all the people in the various sections, but a number of constants seem to emerge from the volume. As the photographer of rich and famous people, Cecil Beaton was perfectly at ease with the most conventional backdrops. The kitsch ‘rose garden’ in Nancy Mitford, 1929 is replicated with only minor changes in Princess Margaret, 1949. One is reminded of Barthes’ le degré zéro de l’écriture: here we have le degré zéro de la mise en scène – or at the very most a deliberate demonstration of Beaton’s mastery of the tradition inherited from oil paintings. Likewise, it is difficult to find any originality in some of the interior backgrounds with draperies (Lady Juliet Duff, 1930s; Jacqueline & Lee Bouvier, 1951). But then, with have the photographs with recherché wall papers and tapestries (Daisy Fellowes, 1930s; Diana Vreeland, 1978) – and above all the portraits with ‘no’ background, the ‘backdrop’ being provided by the light (HM Queen Elizabeth II, 1968, in a dark cloak against a pale grey ‘empty’ backgound) or the apparent absence of light (The Countess of Avon, 1949).
In some cases, the dress of the sitter was imposed (General Carton de Wiart, 1944 in battledress; Margot Fonteyn, 1950 in tutu; Queen Elizabeth II in Coronation Robes, 1953), but when he had a free rein Cecil Beaton more than compensated for these sartorial restrictions, starting with Stephen Tennant dressed as Prince Charming, 1927, Nancy Cunard, 1929 and Rex Whistler, c.1930 in knee-breeches and ending with Jean Shrimpton, 1964 wearing a Madame de Pompadour wig, not forgetting Lady Diana Cooper, 1951.
All through his active life, Beaton was also interested in small group portraits, experimenting with the lay-out. Though initially unsophisticated, the arrangement of the sitters (The Bright Young People, 1927) did not remain so, since The Jungman Sisters of the same year was an early attempt at breaking the conventions of group portraiture. Experimenting with mirrors – which produced several portraits with the same sitter (Gertrude Lawrence, 1920s and Lilian Gish, 1929) – enabled the photographer to produce a spectacular triple portrait, each with its own ‘double’, of The Sitwells in 1928. His fascination for the technique is also made apparent in his use of masks to produce a similar effect (Oliver Messel, late 1920s) – and it was a lasting interest since he reverted to the mirror image for Julie Andrews in 1959.
Another constant is that Beaton was always intrigued by the marginal members of society as opposed to the hereditary élites which provided him with his livelihood. At one stage, Vickers tells us how Beaton ‘explored the loucher elements of San Francisco nightlife’ . As a bi-sexual at a time when homosexuality was severely prosecuted, he produced many portraits of women (Colette, 1930s) and especially men with undisguised homosexual orientations, notably Stephen Tennant, 1927 & 1971; W. Somerset Maugham, 1933; Noël Coward, 1942; Christopher Isherwood, 1957; Francis Bacon, 1960 and E.M. Forster, 1962.
The aesthetic preoccupation, consciously or unconsciously present all through the book, is at its most visible (some would say most obtrusive) in mises en scène like that of T.S. Eliot, 1956, with the deliberate reflection of light in his glasses – when the canons of ‘good photography’ dictate that such ‘faults’ should be avoided at all costs – and perhaps even more so in Aldous Huxley, 1936, which infringes the ‘basic rule’ of portraiture, viz. that the least that the viewer can expect is to have a full image of the sitter’s face.
Finally, the documentary dimension of Beaton’s work is not forgotten in Vickers’s selection, though of course his self-imposed remit could not include more than a few of the magnificent pieces of reportage found in, for instance, Cecil Beaton : Theatre of War (edited by Mark Holborn. London: Jonathan Cape, 2012). For us today, watching the unending internicine wars of the Middle East, the most forceful image in this field is indisputably the picture of the frail seven-year-old child in shorts and sandals on the massive throne, King Faisal II of Iraq, 1942. Beaton’s own contemporary notes are fascinating – not least those on the ‘violently pro-British’ Regent. And we are reminded that sixteeen years later this adorable boy was ‘machined-gunned to death … in the Palace courtyard… [together with] the former Regent and other members of the Iraqi Royal Family’ .
One curiosity of the book is the handful of colour photographs (among them the famous Princess Margaret, 1949 and Queen Elizabeth II in Coronation Robes, 1953) which have a lack of balance in the tones that one no longer sees in high-class publications nowadays – and there is no doubt that this superb volume on thick glossy paper is one. It is likely (there is no comment or explanation offered) that Vickers, in agreement with the technical team of (Chinese) printers, decided to keep the ‘period flavour’ of the garish 1950s and 1960s Ektachrome images. They could have easily modified that ‘outmoded’ balance with today’s technology, but probably wanted the reader of the 2010s to see the colour pictures as they looked originally. This incidentally provides the viewer with an interesting contribution to the unending debate on monochrome v. full-colour photography: it is clear here that the black-and-white pictures have not ‘aged’ in the negative sense, unlike their colour counterparts, which one can only appreciate with a nostalgic smile.
There is therefore absolutely no doubt that Cecil Beaton : Portraits and Profiles should be acquired by all Colleges of Art as well as all University and Public Libraries. Librarians will note that the book is not ‘perfect-bound’, but bound in sewn sections – a guarantee of strength and longevity. But this attractive volume would also make the perfect present for anyone interested in the social, intellectual and artistic scene of the twentieth century, of which Cecil Beaton was such a multi-faceted – and talented – actor, as the book amply demonstrates once more
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