Cecil Beaton

 

cecil beatonI sometimes doubt that Americans understand issues of class at all. Our society is so pugnaciously egalitarian that we imagine tangible assets are what distinguish one set of people from another. But as the English understand class, it has little to do with one’s funds and everything to do with one’s upbringing. Cecil Beaton, despite his father’s timber merchant background, was the very picture of high class, the kind of person who, at the age of eleven, could stage a somewhat fuzzy photograph of his sisters among trees and title it “Babes in a Corot Wood” yet have no one think him precocious. (Two years later he shot a photo of his sister Nancy which he titled “A Norfolk Bacchante” which was probably a bit much, even for his crowd.) I think that folk of Beaton’s station in life (at least at the beginning of the twentieth century) simply assumed everyone knew who Corot was, that everyone appreciated and understood great art and music, but some were simply limited by their purse for opportunities to experience it.

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Beaton began quietly, attending university only long enough to acquire the contacts he needed to get himself started in the world of publishing. Before long he was on the staff of London Vogue and building a real reputation for his style. While his photographs weren’t thought of as technically innovative, his compositions were, even to the point that some lumped him together with the surrealists, a thing which neither Beaton nor the surrealists cared for at all. But it was Beaton’s unique gift, that in the middle of his extravagant design for a still, he could yet manage to snap at the precise instant to capture the elusive character and emotion that is bread and butter to the image makers. Small wonder people wanted to be photographed by Beaton.

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Beaton did not make his way to Hollywood until 1931. He had a great romp through the stables of stars, taking pictures pretty much as he pleased. But the star he most wanted to photograph, Garbo, refused him altogether. She wanted nothing to do with him. “He talks to newspapers,” was her only comment. In his book, Beaton, James Danziger reports of Beaton’s first glimpse of Garbo taken from his diary.  From the diary: “If a unicorn had suddenly appeared in the late afternoon light of this ugly, ordinary garden, I could have been neither more surprised nor more amazed by the beauty of this exotic creature.” Yeah, I imagine he probably talked like that, too. Per Danziger, “as it came time for Garbo to leave Beaton asked, ‘Can I lunch with you tomorrow?’
‘No,’ was her reply.
‘Shall we meet again?’
‘No.’
In desperation Beaton grabbed hold of a feather duster that lay on the sofa next to where she sat. ‘Can I keep this as a memento?’
‘No.’
‘Then this is good-bye.’
‘Yes, I’m afraid so. C’est la vie!’ 
(Beaton, edited and with text by James Danziger, 1980, Viking)

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Beaton’s life is fascinating and far too complex to even outline here. Suffice it to say there was public shame and bleak failure, followed by a rebuilding of his reputation. He ended up in the films he loved so much, both as an actor (rarely) but more successfully as a designer.  He won Academy Awards for costume design for Gigi and for My Fair Lady. He worked on Broadway as a lighting designer, costume designer and set designer. He did okay. Four Tony Awards.

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He knew almost everybody and worked with most of them, both in politics and entertainment. He was in on almost every cool cultural twist in modern, western, artistic life, from carrying Anita Loos piggy-back around San Simeon to hanging out with Keith Richards. And yes, lest you were worried, in the mid 40s he finally got his way and even the goddess Garbo finally said, “Yes.”

C’est la vie!

cecil garbo 3

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10 Responses to Cecil Beaton

  1. Pat Snyder says:

    That Garbo was worth waiting for. Even her ears are extraordinary. The costumes for both Gigi and My Fair Lady are just about my favorites, but the latter one I put down to Audrey Hepburn. Never asked who designed them. (Had to check the spelling for extraordinary to make sure the a was there – never realized how many ex- words there are).

  2. Pat Snyder says:

    By the way, that picture of Elizabeth with her baby – she looks as though she is trying to hold and protect him from the future. If I were she, it would be one of my favorites.

  3. Patti Kuche says:

    I always think of Cecil Beaton as a true master of the art and the grandpapa of contemporary photographic practices. Your glorious shots here, all of them film and all so beautiful . . . . but he was a dab hand with the vaseline!

  4. Lovely! I remember reading a quote from Evelyn Waugh about going to school with Beaton, and that Waugh said he (Waugh) bullied Beaton – and that he would continue to do so if given a chance. Very peculiar. I saw a copy of “Cecil Beaton in New York” and your post has reminded me I have to get a copy. Thank you!

    • foxpudding says:

      Yes. Beaton talks about it at length in his diary when discussing his years at Heath Mount, Hampstead. He didn’t seem to hold it against him much, and years later took some of the better pictures of Waugh we have.

  5. What a great exchange between Beaton and Garbo. Ah, to have a man want my feather duster….

    • foxpudding says:

      I’m not sure if “feather duster” refers to the cleaning tool we use (in which case, what’s it doing on the couch) or is some now arcane reference to a personal item. Thanks.

  6. Beaton’s love affair with Garbo inspired our ‘Garbo’s Eye’ design using one of his drawings of her in a surrealist vortex of passion! Check it out here: http://www.cecilbeatonfabrics.com/products-page/garbos-eye-natural-linen/beaton-1929-duplicate-4/

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