Cecil Beaton is having a moment. The legendary fashion photographer is the subject of Cecil Beaton: Portraits and Profiles, a new anthology pairing some of his most iconic images with personal diary entries about his subjects, including Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, and Elizabeth Taylor. His 1954 illustrated book, The Glass of Fashion, which focuses on designers such as Balenciaga, Chanel, and Dior, was just reissued after many years out of print — and his 1948 Vogue shot of models clad in pastel gowns was the poster for the Costume Institute’s recent show “Charles James: Beyond Fashion.”
Below, five things to know about Beaton — click through the slideshow for some of his most famous portraits alongside quotes from Portraits and Profiles about the people who sat for them.
He was brutally honest about his subjects. Beaton studied each of his sitters closely and remained bitingly critical, no matter how elegant or strikingly beautiful he or she might have been. “If both sides of Grace Kelly’s face were the same as the right half, she wouldn’t be on the screen,” Beaton wrote in his diary, describing said half as “very heavy, like a bull calf.” Though harsh, his appraisals were always in service of capturing his subjects at their very best: “He observed faults and then worked to eliminate them,” writes Hugo Vickers, editor of Portraits and Profiles. “Nor did he hesitate to touch them up ruthlessly.”
He became friends with many of his subjects. Beaton’s photographic flattery no doubt played a part in securing his place as the unofficial court photographer of the British royal family, a role he first assumed in 1937 when he shot wedding portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Two years later, he photographed the Queen Mother, and in 1953 he shot Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation portrait against the backdrop of Westminster Abbey’s Henry VII chapel. He photographed young socialites, including Daisy Fellowes and Jackie Kennedy (then Bouvier), as well as fashion icons, including Coco Chanel and Diana Vreeland. After photographing members of the high society, Beaton eventually became a part of it — and elevated the status of his profession itself: “He advanced the role of the photographer from being a man who arrived at the tradesman’s entrance,” Vickers writes, “to arriving through the front door and very often staying for lunch.”
He was also an accomplished war photographer. With the outset of World War II, Beaton’s career took a more serious turn: He documented the effects of the war — both at home and abroad — for Britain’s Ministry of Information, touring the Near East, Far East, and India. His portrait of 3-year-old Blitz victim Eileen Dunne, sitting on a hospital bed with her head bandaged, ran on the cover of a 1940 issue of Life magazine and became one of the most enduring images of the conflict.
He won three Oscars for his work with sets and costumes. Beaton never wanted to be thought of simply as a photographer. He had a love of the theater – and while he failed to achieve his dream of becoming a playwright, he was a talented set and costume designer. He worked in theater, ballet, and opera, but his most notable designs included belle epoque costumes for the 1958 film Gigi, which won him his first Oscar. He later won two Oscars for the costume design and set decoration of the 1964 film adaptation of My Fair Lady.
His work inspired the dress code for Truman Capote’s Black & White Ball. The black-and-white Ascot attire Beaton created for My Fair Lady set the tone for the legendary soiree, which took place in 1966. Beaton attended with Penelope Tree.