At the weekend I paid a visit to the Imperial War Museum, again using my trusty National Art Pass to visit the exhibition of photography, Cecil Beaton: Theatre of War. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, I was responsible for cataloguing Beaton’s letters in a previous job, so am always interested in taking a look at his work.
Beaton is most famous for his society photographs and his work designing costumes and sets for films such as My Fair Lady, but he also acted as an official war photographer during the Second World War. His appointment by the Ministry of Information came at an opportune time, as his career was foundering after an ill-advised anti-Semitic cartoon published in New York. Beaton’s wartime work helped to restore his reputation and became, according to him, his most important body of work.
The exhibition was bookended by displays examining his work before and after the war. Early in his career, he photographed society figures such as the Sitwells and moved in exalted circles. After the war, his reputation established, he was able to rely less on photography as his career as a set and costume designer for theatre and film productions took off. However, he still remained a popular and cutting-edge photographer, taking pictures of Twiggy and Mick Jagger towards the end of his career.
During the war, Beaton’s photographic lens reached from Blitz-torn London and the Tyneside dockyards to as far away as India, the Middle East, Burma and China. His photographs still have the slightly posed, theatrical quality of his society pictures, but exported to a war setting. This makes for a series of photographs that are immensely different from any other war pictures that I have seen. RAF pilots being debriefed after a bombing raid; London’s churches lying in ruins; soldiers relaxing off-duty in Burma – the pictures are a record of life at the time, but also have considerable artistic merit. They also made a clear contribution to the war effort: Beaton’s picture of three-year-old Eileen Dunne, sitting up in her hospital bed after being bombed out of her London home, appeared on the cover of Time magazine in America and, by evoking the sympathy of the American people, influenced their entry into the war. I wish I could show some of his photographs here, but they are all under copyright; however, if you search Google Images for ‘Cecil Beaton’, you will be able to find many of his pictures. Alternatively you can click here to view some of his war images on the Guardian website.
Complementing the exhibition were displays of magazines to which Beaton contributed, as well as some of his diaries and letters relating to his photographic assignments. I was pleased and proud to see that some of the letters on display were the very same letters that I catalogued three years ago.