“Be daring, be different, be impractical, be anything that will assert integrity of purpose and imaginative vision against the play-it-safers, the creatures of the commonplace, the slaves of the ordinary.” -Cecil Beaton

Photographer and much more

Cecil Beaton was a renowned British photographer and so much more. He designed costumes and theatrical stages. He was a painter who also was an interior designer.

Beaton was born in Hampstead, London to a wealthy merchant family. He attended Harrow School developing a love of photography and for advancement in society. He went to Cambridge where he was a member of the Amateur Dramatic Club and the Marlowe Society. Both were well regarded as high profile organizations that pulled audiences in from London and garnered reviews in national daily newspapers. Beaton earned a reputation for costume and set designs for the productions. Most notably were his performances as the female leads. He sought out publicity for his work, himself and his family

Artistic and social promotion

Cecil Beaton wore hats of many interwoven skills and wore them very well indeed. He was a photographer, a costume, stage set and interior designer not to mention an illustrator, writer and actor. He had put himself in the center of the 1920s fashionista society and a member of the ‘Bright Young People.’ He photographed socialites, artists and heiresses. As he worked through learning photographic techniques, experimented with backgrounds and props, his sisters, Nancy and Barbara (Baba-opening photo, top row third from left) were often his subjects.

1927 saw his first gallery showing of his photographs. The exhibit demonstrated not only Beaton’s mastery of set dressing and costuming of his subjects, but the sitters themselves having been photographed by him has welcomed him into rarefied social circles.

Fashion and Royal commissions

With the success of his portraits of high society, fashion assignments came naturally. He worked for Vogue in London and Paris then, in 1929 in New York. His association with the magazine propelled him into American society.

By this time, Condé Nast himself forced Beaton to work with 8 by 10 inch cameras which the photographer found as a fresh start with a new camera and a new country full of possibilities.

He went to Hollywood on behalf of Vanity Fair to photograph movie stars like Gary Cooper and Shirley Temple (opening photo, top row third from left bottom of the group and top row fourth photo respectively.) His work continued to feature his design and artistic aesthetics even while he began making close up portraits.

The pinnacle of his success occurred in 1939 with a summons to Buckingham Palace to photograph Queen Elizabeth. The success of this made him the Royal photographer of choice. In June of 1953, he photographed the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II (opening photo, top row, far right photo.)

2020-08-30 On Photography Cecil Beaton
Cecil Beaton at the wheel of a truck at RAF Shallufa in the Canal Zone, Egypt, 1942.

The war years

Cecil Beaton was known mainly for his fashion and portrait photographs. He was also an extraordinary documentarian of battles and their aftermaths of World War II. In 1940 he became an official photographer for the British Ministry of Information, traveling frequently to record the devastation of war on locales and people. His superior, Sir Kenneth Clark, expected him to cover the war with his artistic skills as was a documenting its horror. He was given assignments that started on the homefront then across the world. While covering the London air raids he photographed a bombing victim, 3-year old Eileen Dunneher head wrapped in bloody gauze, clinging to her stuffed animal. The photograph was the cover of LIFE’s September 23, 1940 issue (opening photo, bottom row, third from left.)

In 1924 he worked in the Mediterranean and the Middle East before heading on to India and China in 1943 and 44.

During the war years, Beaton continued working for Vogue and conceiving sets for stage and screen. His photograph of model Jean Shrimpton in 1964 for Vogue appears as the first picture in the top row of the opening photo.

Beaton’s approximately 7000 photographs covered all aspects of the Second World War. Beaton felt this was his most important work from his storied career.

“Yesterday I went to the Imperial War Museum, not my favourite place, to see the collection of photographs that I had taken during the war for the Ministry of Information … It was an extraordinary experience to relive those war years; so much of it had been forgotten, and most of the people are now dead; the Western Front, where at least three hundred of my pictures were unaccountably lost, Burma, India, China. It was fascinating to see the scenes in old Imperial Simla, the rickshaws drawn by uniformed servants, the grandeur of the houses, the palaces, the bar scenes, the men on leave swigging beer, and to wonder how I had been able to ‘frat’ [fraternize] with such unfamiliar types. The horrible war had taken me to beautiful landscapes I might not otherwise have seen. I had not realized that I had taken so many documentary pictures, some of purely technical interest. Looking at them today, I spotted ideas that are now ‘accepted’, but which, thirty years ago, were before their time. The sheer amount of work I had done confounded me.”

Sources: Imperial War Museums, Huxley-Parlour,

More mini-bios of influential photographers are featured in On Photography.