When Cecil Beaton visited a clairvoyant in 1926, she told him that he would have a lot to do with royalty. At the time he could not have realized just how prophetic that statement would be.
Cecil Walter Hardy Beaton was born in London on January 14, 1904, the grandson of a blacksmith, and the eldest son of a prosperous timber merchant. He had three siblings: Reginald (Reggie) born 1905, Nancy (born 1909) and Barbara (Baba) born 1912. When he was 11, his grandmother bought him his first camera, which he taught himself the basics of photography, using his mother and sisters as his first models. When he became more proficient he sent his photographs off to London society magazines, writing under a pen name but recommending the work of 'Beaton'.
Raised in Hampstead, he attended Heath Mount School, London where he felt like an outsider much of the time. It wasn't until he attended Harrow School that he hit his stride and involved himself in the theatre, designing sets, sewing costumes and performing. Although not academically inclined, to please his parents he attended St. Thomas' College, Cambridge, studying history, art and architecture. He continued to work on his photography in his homemade studio, sending photographs to the major fashion magazines. Through his university contacts he was commissioned to photograph the Duchess of Amalfi. The photograph, bought and printed by Vogue, gave him his first ever published work.
In 1925 he left Cambridge without a degree and his father gave him a job in his office as a clerk. He lasted eight days. Bringing along his camera, he spent his time attending society parties, taking photographs of the elite and London glitterati. These photographs formed his first exhibition in 1927. Shortly afterwards he set up his own studio, establishing himself as London's definative society photographer. As his success grew he set his sights on the glamour of Hollywood, eventually photographing Marlene Dietrich, Tallulah Bankhead, Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn and Greta Garbo, amongst others.
During the Second World War he worked for the British government and military as official photographer and his images of the devastation were later published in the book Winged Squadrons (1942). In addition to his flourishing photographic career, he wrote several books, worked as an illustrator and set designer for various theatrical productions; winning four Tony awards. For his work in film, he won two Academy Awards for costume design for Gigi in 1958 and My Fair Lady in 1964. His black and white costumes for My Fair Lady were inspired by the 1910 Black Ascot following the death of King Edward VII.
He would photograph the royal family for fifty years, starting in 1930 with Princess Louise, daughter of Queen Victoria. In his royal photographs he was greatly inspired by painters Franz Xaver Winterhalter and Thomas Gainsborough and used blow-ups of their paintings as backdrops for some of his most successful and romantic portraits of Queen Elizabeth and the young Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. These portraits did much to restore the image of the monarchy after the Abdication in 1936, particularly transforming the image of Elizabeth, Duchess of York from minor royal into regal personage when she became Queen. Some of his most notable photographs included the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in 1937, the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, as well as the first official photos of the infants Prince Charles, Princess Anne, Prince Andrew and Prince Edward. Beaton was also influenced by photographers Marcus Adams and Bertram Park and in the 1950's and 1960's his photographs took on a more informal style, inspired by Irving Penn and Richard Avedon.
In 1957 he was became a Commander, Order of the British Empire, in 1960 he was made a Chevalier, Legion of Honor, and he was knighted in 1972. He suffered a stroke in 1974, and although one side of his body would be permanently paralyzed, he taught himself to write and draw with his left hand and had his cameras adapted. However his health would remain damaged and he died in Broadchalke, Wiltshire, 18 January 1980.
© Marilyn Braun 2006
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