Cecil Beaton and the Theatre of War at Imperial War Museum London

By Richard Moss | 07 September 2012
a photo of a bare chested sailor using a sewing machine
A sailor on board HMS Alcantra uses a portable sewing machine to repair a signal flag during a voyage to Sierra Leone.© IWM
Exhibition Preview: Cecil Beaton Theatre of War, at Imperial War Museum London until January 1, 2013.

Cecil Beaton may not be the first name that springs to mind when thinking of World War Two photographers, but a new exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in London reveals how the famous society portraitist took his considerable talents into the various theatres of war with remarkable results.

Cecil Beaton: Theatre of War explores the impact of the Second World War on Cecil Beaton’s life and work and features over 350 photographs, artifacts, vintage documents and publications, film clips, digital media, sketches and design work.

Employed by the Ministry of Information, Beaton took some 7,000 photographs between 1940 and the end of the war.

Little known or forgotten until recent years, the photographs are now coming to be considered his most important works – a notion helped in part by a recent exhibition at Imperial War Museum North in Salford which featured his searing portraits of Tyneside shipbuilders.

These offered a glimpse of how Beaton brought his skill and mastery of light and composition to shipyard workers but he was equally adept at catching soldiers, workers and civilians caught up in the cataclysmic events of 1939 – 45, a period that saw him create a body of work that arguably stands out from that of any other photographer.

Whether photographing members of the Long Range Desert Group, shipyard workers, generals or land girls all of Beaton's subjects were given the same treatment.

During the war these portraits - and studies of objects and scenes, which ranged from the detritus of  battlefields in the Western Desert to poignant pictures of communities on the cusp of change in the far east - were well used by his employers.

Beaton was the only photographer during the war whose name was published by the Ministry of Information alongside his work.  

Looking at the sheer range and power of the work today it’s easy to see why.
More pictures:

a photo of WRNS sailir with her arms crossed
1940s, from a series of studies of uniforms worn by WRNS ratings.© IWM
China 1944: The Assistant Chief of Police and his staff grouped in a circular doorway at headquarters in Chengtu.
More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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