Lucire Lucire home page / Fashion / / Volante: travel features and news / Living / Lucire: Insider blog
News headlines / Lucire Reader Forum / Subscribe to the print editions of Lucire
Lucire Community 
Lucire feedback 
Subscribe to the Lucire Insider feed
Subscribe to Lucire

living: exhibitions


Capturing celebrityCapturing celebrity

Coco Chanel by Beaton
Gabrielle 'Coco' Chanel, 1937, Cecil Beaton. (Cecil Beaton Archive, Sotheby's, London)


Cecil Beaton photographed everyone from Jean Cocteau to Jean Shrimpton, documenting the 20th century’s fascination for celebrity
photographed by Cecil Beaton


IN THE LAST NINE YEARS, Lucire has attended numerous exhibitions. The exhibitions have to be relevant to readers, and significant to fashion and society. Thus, we looked at Jacqueline Kennedy’s White House years’ dresses in New York, and we paid tribute to Gianni Versace at Te Papa in Wellington; we celebrated Japonism in fashion at Te Papa in 2003, and now comes another to antipodean shores.

Cecil Beaton’s Portraits, at the Christchurch Art Gallery, is one such exhibition, following a successful stint in 2004 at the National Portrait Gallery in London. That time, it marked one of the biggest showings of Beaton’s work since Sir Roy Strong’s exhibition of the photographer’s work in 1968, coinciding with a renewed interest in Beaton.

We believe Beaton will always be interesting, not just to the fashionista for his contributions to Vogue, but to those fascinated by the cult of celebrity. As one of the twentieth century’s great portrait photographers—if not the archetype of the British portrait photographer—he has tracked everyone from the Sitwells to the Rolling Stones, with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and Marilyn Monroe in between. The Windsors and Monroe are on display—Monroe’s photographs are from her own collection.

As time passes, Beaton’s work does not fade into the past. His subjects may be increasingly unknown to younger readers, but his way of capturing celebrity remains a fascinating study. He reminds us that the period just before some of us were born was not that different to the time we live in today, and were as celebrity-obsessed as ever.

He was perhaps not known for being technically brilliant, either: Beaton searched for the right moment, and made his reputation on that and on tireless subsequent instructions to retouch. This, too, influences photographers today.

Beaton, born in 1904, bought his first camera—a Kodak 3A—at age 11, and one of his earliest photographs of his sister, Baba, opens the exhibition. The 1922 photograph was taken during Beaton’s college years, and by 1925, he had set up his photographic studio.

Stephen Tennant, one of the “bright young things” of the period (perhaps the brightest?), was an early client and became a close friend. The aristocrat was known for his decadent lifestyle, and Beaton was drawn into this world.

In the 1920s, Beaton not only shot for British Vogue but attended parties for the magazine, describing scenes with Noël Coward, Gladys Cooper and name-dropped in his sentences with the same passion, though perhaps greater courtesy, than may be seen in the press today. Beaton perhaps was the first celebrity photographer: a man as much part of the scene as he was assigned to record it.

In the 1930s, Beaton met George Hoyningen-Heune and Horst P. Horst, fellow photographers from the Continent. Between them, and other Vogue  contributors such as Man Ray and Steichen, they set much of the decade’s leading look in fashion photography.

The exhibition features Beaton’s portraits of Nancy Cunard, the Jungman twins, Gary Cooper, Johnny Weissmüller, Loretta Young, Marlene Dietrich, Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli, HM Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother), and his friends Jean Cocteau (who called him ‘Malice in Wonderland’) and Pablo Picasso.

After HM King Edward VIII’s abdication, Beaton notably took photographs of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor on their honeymoon, which were published in Vogue.

During the war years, Beaton became an official war photographer, and continued his portraits in this context: Cecil Day-Lewis, Benjamin Britten, and Walter Sickert and Helen Lessore. His most famous portrait during this time, however, was Blitz victim Eileen Dunne in his 1940 work Bomb Victim.

After the war, Beaton subjects included Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, a young Marlon Brando and Yul Brunner, and Greta Garbo, with whom the photographer had a romance. Adèle Astaire and Coral Browne were also his lovers, but he never managed to have a long-term relationship. It was generally understood that the great love of Beaton’s life was art collector Peter Watson, though the two never had a relationship.

In the 1950s, Beaton captured most of Hollywood’s great stars, and became as famous after the war as he was before: Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman were among his subjects. The jet-setting who’s who were also captured: Maria Callas, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr and Dean Martin, as well as Sugar Ray Robinson, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, John Betjeman and Dame Edith Sitwell.

Beaton photographed HM Queen Elizabeth II at her coronation in 1953, another notable photograph for the British Royal Family. It is said that Beaton’s image of the young queen elevated her from a mere princess to someone who could rule an Empire; though through his images even the Queen was portrayed as human.

Beaton began work in 1956 on the costumes for My Fair Lady for the American stage, and won an Oscar for his work on the film version in 1964. He had won an earlier Oscar for his work on Gigi (1957).

In the 1960s, Beaton photographed David Hockney, Jean Shrimpton (the Shrimp, as she was known to fashionistas), Audrey Hepburn, Rudolf Nureyev and Mick Jagger. He continued his work in film, on Barbra Streisand’s On a Clear Day, You Can See Forever. His last Broadway play was Coco (1969), starring Katharine Hepburn.

Later portraits featured Andy Warhol, Ralph Richardson and Louise Nevelson, and Bianca Jagger, some of which are shown at Christchurch.

In 1971, Beaton’s Fashion at the V&A was regarded as one of the great exhibitions, with 350 outfits dating from the 1880s.

Beaton was knighted in 1972, and worked full time till a stroke in 1974. He returned to photography briefly in 1979 before his passing the following year.

He probably did not want to be remembered solely as a photographer. He had tried for 30 years to write a play, but failed to; and his work for the stage and for films should not be overlooked. He painted, designed, diarized, wrote books and poetry and drew caricatures. He published his diary notes and sketches from My Fair Lady, and the musical’s lyricist, Alan Jay Lerner, once said that ‘inside Cecil Beaton there was another Cecil Beaton … One did the sets, another did the costumes. A third took the photographs. Another put the sketches in an exhibition, then into magazines, then in a book. Another Cecil photographed the sketches and sold these.’

In all this, he contributed to the way the 20th century recorded its fascination for celebrity, and history may well record him favourably for that. •


Cecil Beaton: Portraits will be at the Christchurch Art Gallery till September 10, 2006. Admission NZ$12, concession NZ$10; children are admitted free.


Add to | Digg it

Marlene Dietrich, by Cecil Beaton
Marlene Dietrich, 1935, Cecil Beaton. (Cecil Beaton Archive, Sotheby's, London)

Winston Churchill, by Cecil Beaton
Winston Churchill, 1940, Cecil Beaton. (National Portrait Gallery, London)

Marilyn Monroe, by Cecil Beaton
Marilyn Monroe, 1956, Cecil Beaton. (Cecil Beaton Archive, Sotheby's, London; courtesy Matt Weld)

Mick Jagger, by Cecil Beaton
Mick Jagger, Marrakesh, 1967, Cecil Beaton. (Cecil Beaton Archive, Sotheby's, London)

Marlon Brando, by Cecil Beaton
Marlon Brando, 1946, Cecil Beaton. (Vogue/the Condé Nast Publications)

Greta Garbo, by Cecil Beaton
Greta Garbo, 1946, Cecil Beaton. (Cecil Beaton Archive, Sotheby's, London)

Nancy Cunard, by Cecil Beaton
Nancy Cunard, 1929, Cecil Beaton. (Cecil Beaton Archive, Sotheby's, London)

Lee Miller and Marion Morehouse, by Cecil Beaton
Lee Miller and Marion Morehouse, 1929, Cecil Beaton. (National Portrait Gallery, London)

Rudolf Nureyev, by Cecil Beaton
Rudolf Nureyev, 1963, Cecil Beaton. (Cecil Beaton Archive, Sotheby's, London)

Elizabeth Taylor, by Cecil Beaton
Elizabeth Taylor, 1954, Cecil Beaton. (Cecil Beaton Archive, Sotheby's, London)

Related articles

When it rains, it reigns
Lucire ventures on to the red carpet for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute Benefit Gala, seen by many as New York’s party of the year by Phillip D. Johnson
Photographed by Raymond Burrows and the author

  Celebrating Jacqueline Kennedy
The Met’s Jacqueline Kennedy: the White House Years exhibition by Phillip D. Johnson