Portraying flamboyance through the lens of Cecil Beaton

Imagine a young man with a brilliant aesthetic eye, combined with a theatrical persona as well as an addiction to glamorous society. The talk is of Cecil Beaton, one of the most celebrated British portrait photographers of the 20th century, renowned for his images of elegance, glamour and style. 

From young socialites to Andy Warhol and the Rolling Stones, 1920s flappers to Twiggy, Beaton straddled the twentieth century, recording its heroes and starlets, fashions and tastes. But how did Beaton get into that scene and how did he manage to capture a certain flamboyant whiff? 

Born in 1904 in London, Beaton originates from a family of wealthy merchants, growing up in an England still dominated by Edwardian values and vogues. He was educated at a private London school where he also was able to develop a passion for both photography and society. During his early years, Beaton was inspired a lot by “Eggie Hine”, who encouraged Beaton to hand in a work for the annual Royal Academy Exhibition. 

However, Beaton decided to start his career at theatre, taking the female lead in the plays produced by the dramatic society. He then joined the Amateur Dramatic Club and the Marlowe Society, both of which had regular drawing audiences from London with an excellent reputation. During his theatre years, Beaton gained appreciation not only for his female roles but also for his set and costume designs.

In order to get into society, he attended parties, joined his mother on charity committees, took and sat for photographs. Therefore he worked hard to be recognised by the press and future patrons, presenting himself as an “aesthete”, he explored his identity through a series of public creative activities. From his writing and photography to his design work and even his circle of friends – reflected his pursuit of the aesthetic and luscious including his fine selected wardrobe. 

So, Beaton came to establish himself as an aesthetic allrounder, being a photographer, an artist and illustrator, and a designer of sets, costumes and domestic interiors; and also as a writer and an amateur actor.

Beaton’s career as a fashion photographer grew naturally of his work as a society portraitist, and flourished under the patronage of Vogue, first in London and Paris and later in New York. In the following years, Condé Nast’s apartment would host Beaton’s photographic sittings for Lee Miller and Marion Morehouse.

His association with Vogue provided him with the foundation to make an impressive entry into American society.

His main achievement on that occasion would be to photograph film stars in Hollywood for Vanity Fair, Vogue’s sister magazine. Working away from his familiar studio and its resources, and with sitters who habitually faced the lens, Beaton adopted new settings and props, and experimented with new formats. His portraits from this period, and through the 1930s, reveal an increasing reliance on close-ups of the face, often strongly modelled by contrasting light and shade, and also the increasing incorporation of floral motifs. These tropes give the images immediacy and freshness, and may even express the photographer’s attempts to respond more directly to the people in front of him. Yet, on closer inspection, they do not quite retain the natural quality that they first suggest. Beaton’s aesthetic remained highly artful if not so brazenly artificial, and made frequent nods towards Surrealism.

In the post-war period Beaton’s photography style became less flamboyant and much clearer. He photographed existentialist writers such as Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre in Paris, and emerging actors in America, the 21 year old Marlon Brando and Yul Brynner, and the reclusive Greta Garbo, the subject of Beaton`s long-term romance.

Besides photography he also resumed his costume and set designs for the theatre after the war. In 1956 Beaton started work on the costume designs for the first version of My Fair Lady, which clearly show a reference to Beaton’s appeal towards Edwardian England elegance. In the midst of this he also won an Oscar for his work on another great film musical Gigi (1957) with Leslie Caron.

The fifties were indeed marked by Beaton moving to Harper’s Bazaar magazine, for whom he had the possibility of portraying many of his most famous images of beautiful women including Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly and Ingrid Bergman. His male subjects included Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr and Dean Martin.

During the sixties, Beaton photographed numerous cultural and musical icons, such as Twiggy, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. And one last significant step was winning an Oscar for his designs for the film version of My Fair Lady, which he won in 1964. 

Besides Beaton never lacked of flamboyance and the ability of catching beauty in all its facets, which is what makes him an icon until present daytime.

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