‘Be daring, be different, be impractical’ – Cecil Beaton, an exhibition

An exhibition brings together the work of Cecil Beaton, charting his incredible career, in which he photographed some of the most defining figures of the twentieth century.

The Queen

Her Majesty The Queen, Variation On The Official Coronation Portrait, 1953

“Be daring, be different, be impractical,” Cecil Beaton once declared. “Be anything that will assert integrity of purpose and imaginative vision against the play-it-safers, the creatures of the commonplace.”  

Beaton rejected convention. He refused the limiting parameters of labels, embracing fluidity instead. Beaton was not only a photographer, he was a diarist, painter, Oscar-winning set and costume designer, cartoonist, Bright Young Thing, amateur actor, war documentarian and writer; a cultural shape shifter. In one lifetime, he seemed to adopt multiple personas.


Lady Jersey, 1935

Born in Hampstead in 1904, Beaton was classmates with George Orwell, Evelyn Waugh (who bullied him) and Cyril Connoly (who, in his autobiography, recalls the beauty of Beaton’s singing). He became interested in photography as a child after seeing portraits of society women and actresses circulated on picture postcards. Receiving his first camera –  a Kodak 3A folding camera – when he was 11, Beaton learnt the basics from his nanny and soon began photographing his immediate family.

In one of his early photographs shot in 1924, his younger sisters Nancy and Baba are pictured against a reflective surface – a technique Beaton would continue to use throughout his career. The kaleidoscope-effect provides an illusion of depth, the girls’ heads seemingly suspended in space. It’s a reflection of Beaton’s innate experimental nature, forever pushing the boundaries, and anticipates his later Surrealist tendencies.

Nancy and Baba Beaton, 1924

Baba Beaton, 1937

Marianna Van Rensselaer In Charles James Hat, 1930

Although the family were comfortable, Beaton was unhappy with what he perceived as an ordinary life and longed to escape. By 1925, he’d abandoned his studies and become a fixture of the art scene in London. For Beaton, the camera offered a passport into “many fields of interest which would otherwise have remained unknown”. With his camera, he entered the close-knit Bohemian circle known as the Bright Young Things, whose nocturnal exploits attracted the attention of tabloids and inspired Evelyn Waugh’s satirical 1930 novel, Vile Bodies. As a generation that had been too young to fight in WWI but bore witness to its destruction, their mantra was “carpe diem” – a philosophy that instantly resonated with Beaton.

During this period, he photographed the English poet Edith Sitwell posed as a medieval tomb effigy; the Jungman sisters in repose – a pair known for their rebellious escapades (dressing up as a Russian spy, Teresa would tell unsuspecting men stories of mystery jewels, while Zita persuaded the Hovis bread factory to bake clues into a special loaf for one of the BYT’s trademark treasure hunts); and he portrayed Lady Loughborough with her head daringly placed underneath a bell jar, the way you’d capture a trespassing house spider.


Dame Edith Sitwell, 1926

Through these young socialites, Beaton met Osbert Sitwell who helped him produce his first exhibition at the Cooling Galleries. It was this show, with his captivating photos of the Bright Young Things, that ultimately led to a contract with Condé Nast. In 1929, Beaton moved across the pond and became a staff photographer at Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar

By 1930, the cult of Beaton was in full force. If you were anyone famous in the 20th century, it’s likely you would’ve had your portrait snapped by him. He photographed everyone from Marlene Dietrich to Pablo Picasso, Coco Chanel, Lucian Freud, Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly, Jean Cocteau, Audrey Hepburn and Frank Sinatra – and many became his friends.

Dame Edith Sitwell At Tea, 1930

Paula Gellibrand, Marquise de Casa Maury, c. 1928

As Hugo Vickers noted in his biography on Beaton, his flamboyant personality was infectious: “he advanced the role of the photographer from being a man who arrived at the tradesman’s entrance to arriving through the front door and very often staying for lunch.”

What Beaton lacked in technical skills, he made up for in staging scenes, posing models and an intuitive sense for the precise moment of when to press the shutter. Embracing the theatrical side of his personality, he would often use elaborate props, costumes (some designed by himself), hand-painted backdrops, and other materials such as silver foil and cellophane to fuse the portraits with an element of Beaton-esque fantasy (Jean Cocteau once playfully referred to Beaton as ‘Malice in Wonderland’).


Georgia Sitwell, Renishaw, 1930

Whether it was his natural use of light or his ability to coax sitters out of their shells, Beaton was known to highlight the best sides of his subjects, and (as great portraiture should) capture the essence of their personalities. His approach was also characterised by the way he referenced classical styles in his work, yet continuously managed to innovate. As expressed by the major fashion designers at the time – notably Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli – there was an ongoing dynamism between the old and the new, and Beaton was fully part of that forward-looking movement.

Beaton also experimented with radical juxtapositions, placing geometric shapes from the avant-garde Constructivist movement behind a profile of Mrs Beatrice Guinness, which, without the background, could be mistaken for a portrait by the 19th-century photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.

Coco Chanel, Paris, 1965

While Beaton’s move to the U.S. propelled his career forward, things took a backward turn in 1938, when he was fired from Vogue for inserting the word ‘kike’ alongside an illustration of New York society. Following the swift withdrawal and reprinting of the issue (at no small cost), Beaton was forced to issue an apology. Commenting on the matter in his diaries, he stated that he was not anti-Jewish, but that he was so exhausted it was a subconscious accident.

Back in England, Beaton was recruited as a photographer for the Ministry of Information, and as well as photographing the damage to London during the Blitz, he was posted abroad to record images from the home front. Unexpectedly, Beaton’s career was revived by the war and as reflected in his diaries, it was in this period that he took some of his most powerful pictures.

By this point, Beaton had made amends with Vogue and commissions began pouring in. Among the requests was a portrait of Swedish-American actress Greta Garbo. Beaton had always been fond of Garbo, having first met her a decade earlier, but it wasn’t until the mid-1940s that a romance blossomed between them. After a photoshoot in New York, Garbo insisted that only one of the photos was published; however, Beaton submitted enough to fill a double spread, which caused an irreparable rift in their relationship.


Salvador Dali in Fencer’s Mask, 1936

When he was commissioned to take a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II on her coronation in 1953, Beaton defied the traditional, stiff approach of previous coronation photography and opted for a more dramatic portrait, using a painted backdrop of Henry VII’s Lady Chapel in Westminster Abbey. In one photo from the series, he captures the Queen flashing an unrestrained smile at the camera. Beaton continued photographing the monarchy until the year before he died in 1980, creating a more modern, accessible image of the royals that would spare them from disrepute – and eventually secure him a knighthood in 1972.

The photographs shown in Huxley-Parlour’s exhibition span Beaton’s career from his early experimental photographs in the 1920s through to fashion and portrait work in the 1940s and 1950s. While the series closes with a photograph of Coco Chanel in 1965, it signals more of a continuation than an end as Beaton’s legacy continues to inspire new generations of photographers and artists alike.

Mrs Beaton, c1925

Gary Cooper, 1931

Writing for the Financial Times, the renowned photographer Annie Leibovitz says: “Anyone who is interested in being a portrait photographer should study Beaton’s session with Greta Garbo in his room at the Plaza Hotel in New York in 1946. It is an exchange between a goddess and a photographer.

“Beaton was a virtuoso of found light. He understood back light, side light, open shade. No photographer had a longer or more intense romance with the window… Beaton was not interested in the technical side of photography… It was the sitting, the performance within the sitting, that was Beaton’s art. He was a master of it.”

This exhibition is now on view at the Huxley-Parlour gallery on Swallow Street, London, as well as online.

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