Cecil Beaton is mainly remembered as a costume, set and interior designer, and even more so as a prominent fashion photographer and the Royal Family’s official portraitist. However, little is known of his work for the British Ministry of Information during World War II. London’s Imperial War Museum, which houses 7000 prints and negatives from 1939-45, by the famous photographer, currently showcases the exhibition ‘Cecil Beaton: Theatre of War’ (held till January 1st, 2013) as an attempt to trace back this period of Beaton’s life.
Born in 1904 into a wealthy family, Cecil Beaton studied at Cambridge where he became acquainted with socialites and members of aristocracy and took an interest in drama and photography.
Having a certain talent for mundanities and a particular ability to make useful connections, by 1927 Beaton was working for British Vogue and later for Condé Nast and American Vogue until he was fired for publishing an anti-Semitic cartoon in 1938, an event that cooled his relations with American publishers for years.
‘Redemption’ came from his homeland, when he was commissioned to photograph Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, at Buckingham Palace in 1939. On the eve of World War II, Beaton was advised to take part in Britain’s propaganda campaign.
He then approached the young Kenneth Clark, who was Chairman of the War Artist’s Advisory Committee and Director of the National Gallery at the time, and who had supervised the evacuation of the London museum’s art collections to Wales. Clark had persuaded the government to avoid conscripting artists in order to use them for propaganda and the support of the population’s morale.
Poet Dylan Thomas, for instance, wrote scripts for films, while photographers were sent to bombed cities to document the war and to produce images that could be used to thwart Nazi propaganda.
Thus, commissioned by the Ministry of Information, Cecil Beaton, first photographed the evacuation of children from British cities and then the destruction caused by the Blitz, the Germans’ strategic bombing of Britain and Northern Ireland between September 1940 and May 1941. At that time, London was bombed for 76 consecutive nights, and over 20 000 civilians were killed.
Cecil Beaton’s photograph of wounded 3-year old Eileen Dunne recovering at the hospital became famous around the world and deeply touched American public opinion. This image became as iconic as ‘St. Paul Survives’, shot by Daily Mail photographer, Herbert Mason, on December 29th, 1940, date of the 114th night of the Blitz. In this picture, we see St. Paul’s Cathedral surrounded by smoke but still intact, as a symbol of Britain’s courage and resistance.
From 1940 onwards, Beaton led a double career, as a fashion and society photographer on one hand, and as a shadowy Ministry of Information employee, on the other. He regularly wrote and published propaganda pieces about RAF pilots’ fight and took pride in demonstrating national ship building efforts in British Vogue.
The Ministry later sent Cecil Beaton on overseas assignments to cover parts of the North African Campaign in the Libyan and Egyptian deserts, when Lieutenant-General Montgomery ended the German threat on Egypt and the Suez Canal in 1942.
Beaton also covered the Burma Campaign (1943-44), in which British Commonwealth forces opposed the Japanese army. The propaganda here implied that British and Indian soldiers could fight and survive in the jungle’s awful conditions as well as the Japanese troops could.
With the war coming to an end, Cecil Beaton was finally commissioned by Vogue to cover the first post-war Paris fashion week in 1945. Free again, he was then able to devote himself to his long-time dream of becoming a praised and Oscar-winning costume and set designer. Made Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur in 1960 by General de Gaulle (whom he had photographed on Paris’ Liberation Day), Cecil Beaton also received Knighthood in 1972.
Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Share on Google+
Share on LinkedIn