Photo: Audrey Hepburn, Cecil Beaton, 1954. Vogue © The Condé Nast Publications Ltd/ Courtesy Sotheby's.
Dodging the flash bulbs, Florence Hallett headed to the big smoke to get a look at the fantastic new Cecil Beaton exhibition, which is on show until May 31.
Reflecting on his time as director of the National Portrait Gallery, Sir Roy Strong pinpoints the exhibition Beaton Portraits 1928-1968 as a turning point in the gallery’s history.
Back in the 1960s, portraits of living celebrities were never seen on the gallery walls, while photography was a barely acknowledged medium that had yet to be established as a bona fide art form.
That Strong chose fashion photographer Cecil Beaton as a catalyst for change says much about the glamour and appeal of the photographer’s work. But even so, it seems unlikely that anyone could have predicted the sheer scale of the exhibition’s success.
"The public flocked to the exhibition and its run was extended twice. The queues to get in made national news. The Gallery had arrived", writes Strong in the catalogue to Beaton Portraits, the gallery’s new exhibition which runs until May 31.
Thirty-six years later and Cecil Beaton still exerts huge pulling power, the gallery packed with visitors once again.
The current exhibition marks the centenary of Beaton’s birth and draws together work both well-known and unknown from five decades of the twentieth century.Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of Beaton’s output is his ability to adapt himself to the mood of the time.
While similarities have been drawn between the 1920s and the 1960s, they nevertheless seem so different, not least because of the intervening upheavals of World War II, that they could almost be separated by a century rather than being united in the same one.
Photo: Twiggy, Cecil Beaton, 1967. Vogue © The Condé Nast Publications Ltd/ Courtesy Sotheby's.
But Cecil Beaton was at ease with figures as diverse as Mick Jagger and Edith Sitwell, an ease which seems to go hand in hand with Beaton’s passion for invention and reinvention, most obvious in the context of his work as a set-designer for film, theatre and opera.
According to author Peter Conrad, photography was at first incidental to Beaton who found it a useful tool for social climbing.
But, he says: "The world that he ambitiously set out to conquer also capitulated to his creative fantasy: he redesigned it to suit himself."
As a result, Beaton’s portraits are all carefully stage-managed, the spontaneous incursions of the outside world banished from his pictures. This is a thread running through all his work but is perhaps most obvious in pictures from the mid to late 1930s when Beaton dabbled in Surrealism.
A 1936 portrait of Jessie Matthews shows her winding yarn round her fingers, the yarn fed to her by a pair of hands that cut into the picture from the left, the woman’s full figure only visible as part of a play of shadows on the wall behind them.
Marlene Dietrich is posed next to a mask or sculpted head, a piece of high artifice that comments on the human face in its most idealised form, while also highlighting the cool mask-like features of Dietrich herself.
But this 1935 photograph also points to a more personal anxiety about mortality and the fleeting nature of beauty.
Peter Conrad refers to Beaton’s diary, in which the photographer recounts a visit to the barber’s at Selfridge’s, when a hand-mirror allowed Beaton a glimpse of the back of his head.
The mirror revealed, says Conrad: "'A semi-bald man of twice my age and size'. This stranger, he had to admit, was himself. 'Oh, Christ!' he moaned. 'What can I do to be saved?'"
Photo: Marilyn Monroe, Cecil Beaton, 1956. Courtesy Sotheby's.
As a result, Beaton’s photographs are a direct attack on the perishable nature of the body, none more so than his extraordinary 1927 picture of Edith Sitwell.
The writer is photographed as a sculpted effigy on a tomb, her head resting on a cushion and flanked by two stone cherubs. This serves as a clear metaphor for Beaton’s photographic practice, in which photography is a means of defying mortality by providing a permanent record of a person.
More often than not this translates into showing individuals in a dignified and flattering light, a quality that has been highly influential amongst later photographers like Mario Testino, whose clear rapport with his subjects, and similar use of artifice is clearly learnt from Beaton.
A notable change in Beaton’s style occurs in his wartime pictures. He was employed as an official war photographer and he took portraits of public figures, from politicians and soldiers to writers and actors.
Beaton’s famous picture of Winston Churchill became the Prime Minister’s official portrait and it must have played an important role in moulding his public image.
Churchill was unhappy at having been interrupted and the portrait shows a serious man eager to get on with his work.
The austere tone of this portrait is typical of Beaton’s style in the 1940s, during which time he seems to try to get under the skin of his subjects and express their personalities in a more direct and uncluttered way.
Despite suffering a stroke in 1976 that paralysed his right arm, Beaton continued to work up until his death in 1980.
Looking back at his enormous and varied output, it seems remarkable that Beaton was only 76 when he died.
It hardly seems long enough to have packed in the vast scope of his work and create such vivid impressions of more than half of the 20th century.
Admission to the Cecil Beaton show costs £7 for adults and £4.50 for concessions.