BEATON, Cecil (1904–1980)
Plaque erected in 2020 by English Heritage at 8 Pelham Place, Kensington, London, SW7 2NH, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea
Applied Arts, Fine Arts, Theatre and Film
SIR CECIL BEATON 1904–1980 Photographer and Designer lived here 1940–1975
Sir Cecil Beaton was a renowned photographer and designer for the screen and theatre. He lived at 8 Pelham Place, Kensington, between 1940 and 1975, where he is commemorated with a blue plaque.
Born in Hampstead in 1904, Cecil Beaton showed an early creative flair. He would design costumes for his two sisters, using them as models for his photography and entering them into fancy dress competitions.
He rose to fame in the late 1920s, taking glamorous photographs of the ‘bright young things’ of the day. Beaton’s creative use of props and backgrounds made of materials such as cellophane and mirrors were a distinguishing feature of his early portrait photography.
His growing success led to work as a photographer, caricaturist, and illustrator with Vogue magazine in London and New York. However, his contract was terminated in 1938 following an incident where he introduced some offensive anti-Semitic doodles into an illustration for American Vogue. Beaton apologised and strongly denied being anti-Semitic, but the event left a mark on his reputation and he did not work in the US for another year and a half.
After his dismissal from Vogue, Beaton was able to turn his career around by establishing a reputation as a royal photographer. Having already photographed the Duke of Windsor’s wedding in 1937, two years later Beaton took an acclaimed series of studies of Queen Elizabeth (later, The Queen Mother). Beaton and Queen Elizabeth were to become lifelong friends.
Beaton served as an official war photographer during the Second World War. His image of a child who had been bombed out of her home on the front cover of Life in 1940 is said to have influenced the USA’s decision to become involved in the war. It certainly revived his reputation in that country.
In 1940 Beaton moved to 8 Pelham Place in Kensington, a terraced house built in 1833 to designs by George Basevi, a pupil of Sir John Soane. According to Beaton’s biographer, Hugo Vickers, he decorated his house ‘boldly, mixing many periods and paintings’. Chips Channon described 8 Pelham Place in 1941 as a ‘tiny but super-attractive snuff-box of a house’.
In 1962 Beaton redecorated the house in a contemporary style. It was described in a Sunday Times article from that year as featuring a ‘thick mustard stair carpet’ and ‘black velvet bordered with gold filigree embroidery’.
During the 35 years spent living and working at Pelham Place, Beaton’s output was impressive. Photographs taken here include portraits of John Osborne, Arthur Miller, Rose Macaulay, Mick Jagger, Patrick Lichfield, Benjamin Britten, Twiggy, Sir William and Lady Walton, and Gilbert and George.
The stage and film gave Beaton further opportunities to employ his extraordinary visual sense and style. He designed the scenery and costumes for Lady Windermere’s Fan (1945), and the sets for An Ideal Husband and Anna Karenina (1948). His décor and costumes for the film Gigi (1958) were rewarded with his first Oscar. His greatest success as a designer was for My Fair Lady, produced on stage in 1956 and on screen in 1963, for which he won two Oscars.
By the 1960s, Beaton’s work had come to embody the style and spirit of 20th-century Modernism, becoming more stripped back and devoid of unneccessary decoration. His 1962 black and white portrait of ballet star Rudolf Nureyev shows this new austerity in his work.
Beaton’s career was crowned with a retrospective exhibition of his photographs at the National Portrait Gallery in 1968. He was knighted in 1972.
In 1974, Beaton suffered a crippling stroke, but he gradually learned to paint, write and take photographs with his left hand. He died at his Wiltshire home, Reddish House, Broadchalke, in 1980.
According to Truman Capote, writing in the mid-20th century, Beaton influenced:
the work of the finest photographers of the last two generations … there is almost no first-rate contemporary photographer of any nationality who is not to some degree indebted to Cecil Beaton.