It was a glorious sunny morning today when I left home to attend the press preview of the upcoming exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, Cecil Beaton’s Bright Young Things. Long before Andy Warhol, he was already shooting eccentric videos with his friends and playing dress-up. He sought out striking models to match his ideal of beauty among debutantes and titled women of the era.
The Silver Soap Suds (L to R: Baba Beaton, the Hon. Mrs Charles Baillie-Hamilton and Lady Bridget Poulett) by Cecil Beaton, 1930. © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive.
This exhibition, curated by Robin Muir*, brings together multiple fragments from the beginning of Cecil Beaton’s career, providing valuable insights about the man behind and in front of the camera. From paintings to self-portraits and sketches, a flamboyant spirit ahead of his time starts emerging from the gallery's walls.
He used polka dots and other unusual backdrops to create a captivating fantasy world of glamorous men and women. Let’s not forget the context of the beginning of his career, this was the 1920s and 1930s, when the world was transforming at a fast pace and a period between two World Wars.
Cecil Beaton at Sandwich, early 1920s. © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive.
Life was certainly not taken for granted and worth celebrating to the fullest. This was a time of parties and masquerade balls, and Cecil Beaton seized the moment and captured the most renowned figures of the upper class with his camera.
He got it when he was only 10 years old. At the time, he was fascinated by the magazines his mother used to read while having breakfast in bed. That was probably his first contact with photography and the glamour of theatre and fashion, which triggered his creative genius.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. A good photographer must have an ‘eye’ and obviously the technical skills to portray what he sees, but it’s all about communication. Different people bring out different sides of us. In the same manner, when a photograph is taken, it captures not only a moment in time but the communication between who is in front of the camera and the one behind the camera.
Paula Gellibrand, Marquesa de Casa Maury by Cecil Beaton, 1928. © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive.
Once someone told him ‘I didn’t know I could look that good!’ Going through the photographs on display, there’s always something captivating, and that ‘something’ seems to be a reflection of Cecil Beaton’s personal charisma and thirst for life.
As a young photographer he recorded London and New York society and the golden age of Hollywood. He was Vogue’s chief photographer for several decades and during the Second World his documentary work on the realities of conflict and its aftermath, revealed him as a photographer of great compassion.
Nancy and Baba Beaton by Cecil Beaton, 1926. © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive.
One of my favourite photographs of Coco Chanel was taken by him in 1937. But everyone of consequence had also sat for him, from Greta Garbo to Picasso, Queen Elizabeth II to Winston Churchill, Marilyn Monroe to Audrey Hepburn. Let’s not forget his celebrated monochromatic designs for the Ascot scene of My Fair Lady (1964). Hepburn looked ravishing! Beaton was knighted in 1972 for his incredible career and died in 1980.
Cecil Beaton’s Bright Young Things
National Portrait Gallery
12 March - 7 June
*For further information about Cecil Beaton and his early work, there’s a book accompanying this exhibition with the same title by Robin Muir, pictured below. He’s a Contributing Editor to British Vogue and author several books on photography such as Vogue 100: A Century of Style (2016) and Vogue Model: the Faces of Fashion (2013).