I saw this title on Pinterest and it piqued my interest, Cecil Beaton defined his era in many ways, but what is the definition of Beatonesque? Mario Testino says he marked his period as if he were the only photographer around, Roy Strong wrote I know of no one else with an eye so attuned to the visual nuances of an age from Neo-Edwardian to surrealism, from Neo-Baroque, to Op and Pop… he distilled the essential images of successive decades. So what are the markings, or makings of the Beatonesque ?
Beaton defines himself? a self portrait from the 1920’s complete with flowers, faux boserie, surreal hand, exotic mask, studio lighting, painter’s palette and copious sketches. The artiste at work.
But what about his subjects? their settings? artistic progress? inspiration?
He needed society to accept him and his pioneering style, poet and aristo Edith Sitwell sat for him in 1928 and en-eccentric famille below,
opening the door to
the Bright Young Things, the aristo party set that gave him access to hi-society and whose photographs made his name . The longed for ‘uprising‘ (Cecil’s term) that ultimately allowed him to (ex)claim only Queen Mary and Virginia Wolf had denied him a sitting. However it was the middle class background he despised that gave him the outsider’s eye for detail and nuance, Ultimate-Bright-Young-Spark Stephen Tennant observed you may think Cecil is listening intently to what you say. He isn’t. He’s counting the hairs in your nostril as you speak.
Stephen 1927 against silver lame
He took society beauties and pioneered dramatic new images for them, the results gave them a a movie star quality they revelled in.
his sister amidst fellow debs, New Year’s 1930, with lashing of balloons, jewels and attitude wrapped in cellophane.
Romantic in her dramatic heart tiara, evocatively staged with flowers and feathers, the Duchess of Westminster 1931
or what about his ‘best of British beauty’ Lady Diana Cooper who bewitched Americans as the artistique-aristo on theatrical tour
where she probably met THE society hostess Elsa Mendel, propped, set designed and set up by Cecil below …
Cecil’s visceral creative and social ambition relentlessly drove him: he sought out new inspiration, particularly in Paris with the avante garde artistic set and he travelled extensively, camera and sketchbook in hand charting his visual journey, assimilating, editing, distilling.
his enthusiasm for New York is almost palpable in this 1929 sketch.
culminating in ‘I did it my way’, Cecil’s guide to New York, published 1938, fresh and vibrant 80 years on.
The 30’s were really a Cecil decade, coup followed coup, the depression era required glamorous escapism and romantic visions: perfect for Cecil’s flamboyant fairy tale style. Vogue gave him top billing and top dollar especially when he developed a special relationship with American Wallis Simpson who unseated the British King.
Wallis sketched by Cecil and photographed with Edward; his brief to ‘soften’ her, make her a figure of romance.
Then there were gorgeous Vogue covers: his first for the American issue illustrated in 1935
his second photographed in April 1936:
an array of society and fashion shoots, incorporating surreal touches and dramatic lighting:
commissioning Ballet Russes inspired backgrounds for fashion photography
where movie star glamour and abundant flowers create a sculpted romance
or a Sleeping Beauty, La princesse Karam Kapurthala endormie 1934,
and always imaginative, another iconic shot, Mona Harrison ‘ breaking through’, ripped paper and ragged paper frames being another, often copied, Beaton trick.
Then of course there were his celebrity images, Cecil claimed he only shot those he knew and admired, but his ‘unexpurgated’ diaries reveal harsh insights and often coruscating wit, nicknamed Malice in Wonderland he noted: I can’t afford a whole new set of enemies.
but he never failed to deliver, from a poised Marlene Dietrich above to a perfectly regal Chanel below.
1938 saw his removal from American Vogue for an anti-semitic comments, a serious error and end of an era in some ways. However in 1939 the palace doors swung open and he became a ‘quasi-royal‘ photographer through to the 1952 coronation and beyond. His images really define our vision of British royalty, MarioTestino noted: he created the bridge without which his iconic images of Diana for Vanity Fair would not exist.
a young ‘Queen Mother’.
Princess in waiting
the day itself, coronation, Cecil was ringside.
and finally his last and possibly most famous image of the Queen in 1968: powerful and heroic.
The war changed Beaton, removed from his gilded hi-society sphere he travelled with the army abroad and through the bombed capital recording the effects of war:
or amidst the tank wreckage in North Africa
nor his eye for a portrait, his image of this hospitalised child made the cover of Time magazine and tugged American heart strings.
After the war Cecil continued to deliver extraordinary beautiful fashion images and revealing celebrity portraits.
perhaps the most famous Beaton fashion image of all, Vogue 1948, featuring 8 models ‘tonally displayed’ in an 18th century room.
Formal, elegant, complex and theatrical.
a romantic formality for the 1950’s New Look above and dreamy romance below.
and amidst ripped, painterly paper an exquisite 18th Century beauty aka Jean Shrimpton
legendary celebrity images include:
the list goes on and on, down to Warhol’s Factory, where ‘Rip van With It’ as he was then known, held his own.
Where did these images come from?
What distinguishes Beaton is a unique combination:
- a supremely calibrated visual lens
- a Classics education which gave him a great understanding for historical references and a rich vocabulary of visual metaphor
- a fiendishly socially tuned antennae which could equally drill into the individual
- ALL rakishly completed by ‘his top hat and tails’ panache.
His most famous legacy is his photographs, but he was multi-talented as he was faceted: his sketches are brilliant, his costumes won awards and his writing is vivid… oh and let’s not forget his decorating, fabulous houses and gardens, chic hotel suites and reknown set design. All by Beaton.
All Beaton’s work revels in historical allusions, he was consistently drawn to 3 eras:
Madame Pompadour’s Rococo bedroom and the lady herself:
and the lady herself
Closer to home, 19th Century Regency, where Neo-Classical design met Chinoiserie, Empire and Eygpt in a sophisticated British style: think Brighton Pavillion and Jane Austen. Most powerfully of all Edwardian England, the land of his childhood and the final supremely glamorous fling of the aristocracy (Remember Downton series 1?)).
Marc Jacobs does, AW 12’s Louis Vuitton similarly celebrated Edwardiana, proof of the enduring power of historical style to inspire.
Each of these eras is a pinnacle in terms of design, call it a final extravagant flourish and share the following:
- women appear romantic with a profusion of props (flowers to fans, plumed hats to ribbons and bustles).
- classical design underpins an elaborate mélange of styles with exotic influences
- sur-real elements combine with extravagant, visually arresting shapes.
detail from 1948 image
Beaton studied these periods and by fusing them with fashionable elements of his own era, from the Ballet Russes to surrealism, Hollywood Regency to Pop created a visionary body of work that continues to inspire today, check out that Beatonesque board over on pinterest and think:
FLOWERS, dramatic lighting, mirrors, sequins, beauty, BEAUTY, cellophane, paper, artistic palettes, classical staging, surreal moments and reflected glory.
Top hat and Tails photography: the Beatonesque, all rise for Cecil Beaton.
images for this post are from the books below re. Cecil, from my post on the Rococo and Marie Antoinette as linked.