Sir Cecil Beaton’s Career As Vogue And Vanity Fair’s Distinguished Photographer

Sir Cecil Beaton was a British fashion, portrait, and war photographer whose distinct style of photography caught the attention of eminent fashion publications such as Vogue and Vanity Fair.

Aug 25, 2020By Philippa Ogden, MA History of Medicine
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Cecil Beaton (Self Portrait) by Cecil Beaton, 1925 (left); with Audrey Hepburn on the set of My Fair Lady by Cecil Beaton, 1963 (center); and Nancy Beaton as a Shooting Star by Cecil Beaton, 1928, via Tate, London (right)


Sir Cecil Beaton (1904 – 1980) was a British fashion, portrait, and war photographer. Although best known for his photography, he was also a prominent diarist, painter, and interior designer whose distinct style continues to influence and inspire today. Read on for some facts about his life and career as a photographer.


Cecil Beaton’s Early Life And Family

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“Family Mrs. Beaton bottom / Miss Nancy Beaton / Miss Baba Beaton (top) / 1929.” by Cecil Beaton, 1929, via Nate D. Sanders Auctions


Cecil Beaton began his life in North London in the affluent area of Hampstead. His father, Ernest Walter Hardy Beaton, was a prosperous timber merchant who worked in the family business “Beaton Brothers Timber Merchants and Agents”, founded by his own father, Walter Hardy Beaton. With his wife, Esther “Etty” Sisson, the pair had a total of four children, where Cecil shared his childhood with two sisters (Nancy Elizabeth Louise Hardy Beaton, Barbara Jessica Hardy Beaton, known as Baba), and one brother – Reginald Ernest Hardy Beaton. 


It was in these early years that Cecil Beaton discovered and honed his artistic skills. He was educated at Heath Mount School, and then St Cyprian school. His love of photography was first discovered with the help of the young boy’s nanny, who had a Kodak 3A camera. These were relatively inexpensive models of cameras that were ideal for learners. Sensing Beaton’s aptitude for the skill, she taught him the basic techniques of photography and film development. 


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Young Cecil Beaton in Sandwich, 1920s, via Vogue


Equipped with the basic skills and a natural artistic eye, Cecil Beaton drew inspiration from the life that surrounded him and began to photograph both the things and people that he knew and asked his sisters and mother to sit for him. Undeterred by his young age and lack of formal qualifications, the young photographer made bold attempts to get his work into the public sphere. He started sending off his finished portraits to London society magazines under different pen names, where he reportedly recommended his own work.

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University Life

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George “Dadie” Rylands by Cecil Beaton, 1924, via Independent Online


Despite having little interest in pursuing a career in academia, like many young men of his age and background, Cecil Beaton attended Harrow and then Cambridge. It was at this prestigious university where he studied History, Art, and Architecture. In his spare time, he continued to develop his photography skills and it was in this environment that he took his first photograph that went on to be published in the highly esteemed Vogue magazine. The sitter in question was actually the famous literary and theatre scholar, George “Dadie” Rylands, in an out-of-focus image of him as Webster’s Duchess of Malfi standing outside the men’s lavatory near the ADC theatre at the University. By 1925, Beaton had left Cambridge with no degree but ready to pursue a career driven by his artistic passions.


Early Career

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Nancy Beaton as a Shooting Star by Cecil Beaton, 1928, via Tate, London


Following his stint at Cambridge, Cecil Beaton then went on to spend a short period working within his father’s timber business, before going to work with a cement merchant in Holborn. It was around this time that Beaton put on his first exhibition in the Colling Gallery, London under the patronage of the English writer Osbert Sitwell (1892 – 1969). Weary of London and believing that his work would be more successfully received elsewhere Beaton left for New York where he began to build his reputation. He worked hard, reflected in the fact that by the time of his departure he had a contract with the global mass media company, Condé Nast Publications, where he photographed exclusively for them. 


Photography Style

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Kodak No. 3A Folding Pocket Camera with Case, 1908, in the Fox Talbot Museum, Wiltshire, via National Trust UK


Having come a long way from his first Kodak 3A folding camera, Cecil Beaton employed a diverse range of cameras throughout his career which included both smaller Rolleiflex cameras and large format cameras. Rolleiflex cameras were originally made by the German company Franke & Heidecke, and are a long-running, high-end type of camera renowned for their durability. Large format cameras are used for the high-quality image they produce and regarded for the control over the plane of focus and depth of field within the image that they give the user. 


Although Beaton is not considered the most skilled photographer in the history of his discipline, he is nevertheless renowned for having a distinguished style. This was characterized by utilizing an interesting subject matter or model, and by taking advantage of the perfect shutter-release moment. This enabled him to produce striking, high-definition images that were ideal for fashion photography and high-society portraits.


Fashion Photography

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Coco Chanel by Cecil Beaton, 1956, via Christie’s


Indeed, Cecil Beaton produced some beautiful fashion and high-society portraits throughout his career and used his high-profile status and connections to photograph celebrities including Coco Chanel, Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Katherine Hepburn and artists such as Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol and Georgia O’Keeffe.


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Audrey Hepburn on the set of My Fair Lady by Cecil Beaton, 1963


His talents were sought after, and in 1931 he became a photographer for the British edition of Vogue and held the position of staff photographer for Vanity Fair. However, his time at Vogue came to an end after seven years due to inserting a small, but still legible anti-Semitic phrase into American Vogue in the text accompanying an illustration about society. This led to a decision for the issue to be recalled and reprinted, and Beaton was accordingly fired.


Royal Portraits

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Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles by Cecil Beaton, 1948, via the Victoria and Albert Museum, London


Upon his return to England, Cecil Beaton went on to photograph important sitters and produce work which arguably, are responsible for making him one of the most well-known British photographers of all time. These were of the Royal Family, who he frequently photographed for official publication. Queen Elizabeth was reportedly his favorite royal person to capture, and he allegedly kept one of her scented handkerchiefs as a memento of a successful shoot. This work is particularly prolific and had its own exhibition that was shown at museums such as the Victoria and Albert Museum


War Photography

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Eileen Dunne aged three, sits in bed with her doll at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children, after being injured during an air raid on London in September 1940 by Cecil Beaton, 1940, via Imperial War Museums, London


Although known for his fashion and high-society photography, Cecil Beaton proved his flexibility with regards to what, and how he photographed and became a leading war photographer. This was following the Queen’s recommendation of him to the Ministry of Information. This role was pivotal to his career restoration, where his work in this period is best known for the images of the damage caused by the German Blitz. One particular photograph, an image of a young girl lying injured in hospital following a bombing, for example, not only is famous for capturing the horror of war but was also a pivotal tool in persuading America to support the British during the time of conflict. 


In his later life, Beaton is said to regard his war photographs “[…] as his single most important body of photographic work.” He traveled far and wide to capture the impact of WW2 on day-to-day life, taking approximately 7,000 photographs for the Ministry of Information.


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The Western Desert 1942: A sandstorm in the desert: a soldier battling his way to his tent by Cecil Beaton, 1942, via Imperial War Museums, London


Cecil Beaton’s Post-War Life


Beaton lived into old age but was frail after suffering a stroke which left lasting damage to the right side of his body. This hindered how he deployed his practice which led to him becoming frustrated with the limitations that this was placed on his work. Aware of his age, and concerned about his financial future, Beaton made the decision to sell much of his life’s work. He contacted Phillipe Garner, who was in charge of photography at Sotheby’s and made an arrangement whereby on behalf of the auction house, he acquired most of Beaton’s archive aside from the Royal Portraits. This ensured that Beaton would have a regular annual income for the remainder of his life.


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Self-portrait with New York Times by Cecil Beaton, 1937


Cecil Beaton passed four years later, in 1980, at the age of 76. He is reported to have died peacefully, and in the comfort of his own home, Reddish House in Broad Chalke, Wiltshire. Before his death, Beaton had given one last public interview for an edition of the BBC’s renowned Desert Island Discs. The recording was broadcast on Friday 1 February 1980 with the Beaton family’s permission, where the artist contemplated and recalled events in his personal life and career. These included his interactions with the celebrities of old Hollywood, British Royalty, and his reflections on his lifelong passion for the arts which had powered and inspired his career. 


To this date, Cecil Beaton remains a highly esteemed and important figure in the history of both British photography and society. His work is cited as influential by modern-day artists and exhibitions of his work continue to run, attracting mass attendance and high praise from art-critics and lovers alike.

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By Philippa OgdenMA History of MedicinePhilippa Ogden has a passion for history and holds a MA in the History of Medicine from Newcastle University. She is particularly interested in perceptions of the body within the early modern period. In her spare time, she is a keen musician who plays old-time and bluegrass fiddle in her hometown of North-East England.