Trending: The Journey of Cecil Beaton, In a New Book and Film

By David Schonauer   Friday December 1, 2017

Everything about Cecil Beaton was vivid.

Including his black-and-white images.

“Beaton was in his late 30s when he first photographed Queen Elizabeth II, in 1942,” noted The Cut  blog recently. “The first portraits were black-and-white, but Beaton, who would win an Oscar for dressing Audrey Hepburn [in My Fair Lady], still managed to capture something colorful in the royal matriarch’s stern demeanor.”

“Be daring, be different, be impractical, be anything that will assert integrity of purpose and imaginative vision against (...) the creatures of the commonplace,” the legendary photographer once advised. His “truly incisive sense of contemporary tastes led to an elaborate creative portfolio which traversed fashion and portrait photography, costume and set design, painting, illustration, interior design, and bountiful books, as well as his spellbinding documentation of the Second World War,” proclaimed the AnOther blog recently.

The attention on Beaton comes with the release of a book, Love, Cecil: A Journey with Cecil Beaton, from filmmaker Lisa Immordino Vreeland. The book, which presents stories behind Beaton’s photographs and includes his drawings, scrapbooks, and letters, precedes  a documentary  of the same name that premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in September.

“The doc quickly reminds us that Beaton’s talents went beyond his memorable costumes for period films,” notes The Hollywood Reporter. “In a way he was frustrated by his own wide-ranging interests, and he wondered if he might have been more successful if he had concentrated on just one field. But Beaton was too restless for that, and he succeeded as a photographer, a theater and film designer and a gifted writer in a series of published diaries.”

Vreeland, who also directed films about the great fashion editor Diana Vreeland (her grandmother) and art collector Peggy Guggenheim, includes contemporary interviews with Beaton’s friends and admirers — among them artist David Hockney and photographer David Bailey — as well as rarely seen footage of Beaton and many of his photographs.

Her research began with the Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s, which consists of 110,000 negatives and 9,000 vintage prints. Vreeland  also visited the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, which holds 18,000 photographs and negatives of several generations of the Royal family, as well as the Imperial War Museum, home to 7,000 photographs Beaton took during World War II for the British Ministry of Information. Another source: Cecil Beaton’s Papers at St John’s College, Cambridge, which includes 150 diaries.

Beaton was born in Hampstead, London, in 1904 to an affluent Edwardian family, notes AnOther. “His hunger for fantasy, beauty and fame would propel him up the echelons of British society to Hollywood and beyond,” writes Sooanne Berner. He was hired by Condé Nast in his early 20s and chronicled fashion and the rich and famous for Vogue and Vanity Fair, photographing Marlene Dietrich, Pablo Picasso, Coco Chanel, Sergei Diaghilev, Lucian Freud, Albert Camus, Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly, and others.

Among the takeaways from the new book and documentary, notes Berner, are these: Beaton, the celebrated cultural insider, was driven by his feelings of being an outsider. “From an early age Beaton felt like a misfit, misunderstood even by his parents: ’T]hey didn’t understand what I was, what I was yearning for,’ he wrote. Thankfully, he discovered a surrogate family in the Bright Young Things, a bohemian group of London socialites and aristocrats,” writes Berner.

And while Beaton was savvy about advancing his career, he was plagued by self-doubt. “While Beaton’s drive and optimism was infectious,” writes Berner, “he was also known for having a sharp tongue, calling Hollywood’s darling, Katharine Hepburn, ‘a rotten ingrained viper.’  He was also prone to tantrums over his friends’ achievements; as his diaries reveal; Evelyn Waugh, John Osborne, Lord Snowdon, and [Truman] Capote were all the subjects of his jealous outbursts.”

 Beaton once admitted that he “started out with very little talent but a lot of strong ambition.” Sometimes that is enough. It was for him.


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