Exhibition reveals Cecil Beaton’s war effort

The renowned fashion photographer shot some 7,000 photographs now kept in the Imperial War Museum (IWM) archives, ranging from propaganda images to boost morale, documents of the Blitz, and the destruction of the Wren churches

There’s a photo taken by a 16-year-old Cecil Beaton of his younger sisters Nancy and Baba on Hampstead Heath.

Although the blurry image gives no clue to the polished glamour of his later work, it indicates an early interest in the emerging art form – a passion sparked at the age of 11 when his nanny taught him the basics of photography on her Kodak 3A camera.

Beaton was born in a redbrick house in Langland Gardens, Hampstead, in 1904, the son of a wealthy timber merchant and a blacksmith’s daughter.

In 1911, the family moved to a larger house in Templewood Avenue and two years later the young Cecil started at Heath Mount School, New End, where he was a pupil from 1913 to 1917. There he encountered a bully in green knickerbockers named Evelyn Waugh.


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In his diaries, Beaton recalled: “During my first morning at Heath Mount day school the bullies led by a tiny but fierce Evelyn Waugh, at once spotted their quarry in me as, terrified, I crept around the outer periphery of the asphalt playground.”

He went on to attend Harrow School then St John’s College Cambridge where he studied history, art and architecture.

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Throughout, he continued to pursue his photography, he would often get his mother and sisters to sit for him and started sending off his photos to London society magazines, finally achieving success with a backstage photo of actor George Rylands as Webster’s Duchess of Malfi.

Printed in Vogue magazine it was his first published photo and, after leaving Cambridge in 1925 without a degree, Beaton spent time learning his trade at the studio of Paul Tanqueray and fell in with the bright young things of the day, beautiful society set.

His growing reputation for creating flattering, glamorous, theatrically staged images led to him being taken on regularly by Vogue in 1927.

He also set up his own studio where he was in demand for fashion photos, society portraits, and iconic images of Hollywood celebrities often published in Vanity Fair.

Beaton often photographed the royal family for official occasions including the wedding pictures of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and many of his favourite royal, the Queen Mother.

But the war signalled a sea change in subject matter when between 1940 and 1944, Beaton was taken on by the Ministry of Information.

He shot some 7,000 photographs now kept in the Imperial War Museum (IWM) archives, ranging from propaganda images to boost morale, documents of the Blitz, and the destruction of the Wren churches.

He captured one of the most enduring images of British suffering when he snapped three-year-old blitz victim Eileen Dunne recovering in hospital, clutching her beloved teddy bear, an image credited with putting pressure on America to join the war.

The IWM has opened an exhibition of 350 images, artefacts, documents sketches and film clips titled Cecil Beaton: Theatre of War exploring the impact of the conflict on Beaton’s life and work.

Exhibiting many images for the first time, it explores his less well known side as a hardworking war photographer creating powerful humanised portraits, abstract images of ruins, and shots of leaders, soldiers and civilians.

They differ crucially from the imperfect immediacy of candid reportage in that Beaton continues to stage and compose his images, framing, layering, using scale and lighting to carefully orchestrate the shot, he captured the intensity of war like no other photographer.

Beaton wrote his thoughts and impressions as he worked, filling notebooks with almost indecipherable handwriting. They reveal a different side to the pampered indulged society photographer – one who, on travels to Iran, India, Burma, China and Jordan as well as Europe, Africa and America endured discomfort, dengue fever and dysentery, a sceptic leg and a major air crash.

After the war, Beaton indulged his love of theatre, designing sets and costumes for the stage including a revival of Lady Windermere’s Fan on Broadway and the films of two Lerner and Loewe musicals My Fair Lady and Gigi for which he won Oscars.

In 1930 he moved to Wiltshire where he remained until his death in 1980.

Cecil Beaton: Theatre of War runs from September 6 until January 1.

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