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25. September 2021

And Flash – Cecil Beaton


James Ferguson Berr

Remember, you sheep, the way that it’s always been,
the photographer can never be seen.

Yet another truth by the self-proclaimed headmaster of the nation, Erich Kästner. Perhaps, this is why we know so many iconic photographs but rarely remember the person behind the camera. This is the first in a series of articles flipping the camera, depicting the people on the other side of the lens – And Flash! This week, we are taking a look at the master of mise-en-scène: Cecil Beaton.

Originally from a middle-class background, Beaton becomes part of the Bright Young Things in the 1920s. A group of young aristocrats and intellectuals living the good life after having survived the horrors of the Great War. Based around Stephen Tennant, Evelyn Waugh and the Mittford sisters, the group hosted legendary festivities: the so-called fancy-dress parties – and fancy they were! Perhaps they inspired Beaton’s early photography with their glamorous settings and guests gracefully draped in the most elaborate of garments. Beaton often made use of mirrors and reflections, giving his work a dreamy and, as some may say, surrealistic atmosphere.

By the 1930s, Beaton had started working for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar in the USA and didn’t return to Britain until yet another war was unleashed on the world. He began documenting London’s hospitals and quickly showed another side of his oeuvre, far from the days of high society soirees. It was the 1960s and 1970s that brought the next big shift to Beaton’s work, a shift back towards portrait photography. Less pompous than his work of the 20s and 30s, he depicted musicians, socialites and artists such as Mick Jagger, Twiggy and David Hockney in their natural surroundings. Queen Elizabeth II, whose court photographer he had been since 1937, was also a returning subject. Not only a photographer, Beaton also became famous for designing the set and costume of many plays as well as the Oscar-winning feature film My Fair Lady (1964).

Much like his photography, Beaton’s personal style was a nod to the 19th century. Three-piece-suits in loud greens or grey and gold patterns, paired with enormously long collars to underline his tall physique, were part of his eccentric wardrobe. Snuggly cut waistcoats flattered his narrow frame. In the 1970s, he could be seen in flared trousers and silk neckerchiefs – quite an appearance in the predominantly grey city. Never garish, he skilfully exaggerated minute details and followed trends, adapting them to his own personal understanding of style.

If we had the honour of dressing Mr Beaton, we would have to create a melange of the understated craft of Henry Poole’s, the flamboyance of Tommy Nutter’s and the chiselled silhouette of Chittlebourgh & Morgan’s – piece of cake, right? Our suggestion would be a dark green corduroy three-piece with a peaked lapel and a slim double-breasted waistcoat, topping a high-rise pleated trouser with turn-ups. Frankly, we would prefer the legendary bunny costume he wore to one of his numerous balls, but we would have to make some fairly drastic changes to our patterns. Beaton was not only a master of putting others in the spotlight, he is after all the master of self-portraits. Hence, even a headmaster can be wrong every once in a while. JB/TG/YS/MM