Cut and paste: Cecil Beaton's private scrapbooks have finally been published

Behold a master at work, says Susannah Frankel
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The Independent Culture

In the fashion world, there are very few creators who can move across different media with ease. Beware, for example, the fashion editor who writes and styles – a jack of all trades and master of none? And his or her reputation is called even more into question should a foray into the jealously guarded field of photography be on the agenda.

Such a viewpoint is partially grounded in pragmatism: it is rare for a single person to be as visually astute as they are literary-minded, after all, and it also stands to reason that pouring all one's energies into a single pursuit is likely to prove more fruitful than spreading any talent more thinly across the board.

The exception who proves this rule is Cecil Beaton. Born at the turn of the 20th century, in January 1904, Beaton, the son of a timber merchant and an amateur actor, is one of the best-loved fashion and portrait photographers in history, employed during the golden years of glossy magazines by Vogue, Harper's and Vanity Fair, not to mention any Sunday supplement worth its credentials.

His list of subjects, equally, is unrivalled, ranging from the aristocratic and highbrow to the determinedly populist – Cristobal Balenciaga, Margot Fonteyn, Vita Sackville-West, Gilbert and George, Jane Birkin, Mick Jagger and, of course, the British Royal Family were all captured by his lens, as was Greta Garbo, whom the photographer once went so far as to propose to. Beaton also worked as a hugely observant and witty diarist.

Again, the circles he moved in make for irresistibly starry reading: Picasso, Coward and Capote, to name just three, appear in these hallowed pages. Beaton worked as an interior, stage and costume designer, too, most famously winning an Oscar for My Fair Lady, the visual richness of which still makes it one of the most oft-referenced films by fashion designers in particular. There was even a stint as a British war correspondent to consider, all of which gives new meaning to the term "renaissance man".

Less well-known, perhaps, is the fact that throughout his long and grand career, this extraordinarily protean talent attended as painstakingly to his scrapbooks as he did to any more formal work.

A book that celebrates this element of his output, Beaton: The Art of the Scrapbook, is published by Assouline this month. Primarily intended for Beaton's personal use, a way of expressing a prevailing mood, preparing for a more challenging commission or just gathering together images that piqued his interest in some way, they are as revealing of his interests and obsessions as they are entertaining.

"Leafing through their pages, one sees Beaton working out his ideas in an intuitive state, sowing the seeds of artistic inspiration, and immersing himself completely in the silent dialogue between image, memory and feeling," writes James Danziger in the excellent introduction to this hefty tome.

"Much of the pleasure of Beaton's scrapbooks comes from the combination of two elements: the hormonal charge of teenage-style fandom and the scholarly art-historical knowledge of the Cambridge student and sophisticated collagist... A 14th-century Pieta precedes a moody headshot of Mick Jagger ... A snapshot of Beaton's garden abuts the spectre of a Roman ruin."

Add to the mix Beaton's own sketches, contact sheets, invitations, Christmas cards from the Royal Family "and the raw ingredients are clearly more fit for soufflé than shepherd's pie".

While Beaton's scrapbooks were, primarily, a private affair, an integral part of any art school education decrees that these, as well as mood boards – loose-leaf collaged cards – are a vital way of communicating an idea to a wider audience, or team. Any student who has passed through such an institution will have been encouraged to organise their work and thoughts in this way and fashion designers also go on to use the method to develop their collections and explain any ideas and/or reference points that have inspired them. John Galliano, both for his own collection and for Christian Dior, produces hundreds of beautifully bound books, documenting everything from a trip to China, for example, where snapshots of everything from a sartorially idiosyncratic washing line to a behind-the-scenes display courtesy of Shaolin monks, may be included.

In his design studio, assistants, many of them students, are employed to take this further, scrap-booking colour and fabric swatches which are available for scrutiny alongside. Alexander McQueen was also a master of the mood board, pulling together everything from obscure 1980s imagery to Old Master paintings and from Darwinist studies of nature to iconic fashion photography courtesy of masters including Penn, Avedon and, perhaps inevitably, Beaton himself.

On a more corporate level, mood boards are created to inform anyone in the retail sector who hasn't been able to attend the twice-yearly men's and women's ready-to-wear shows about the new season. Fashion stylists, too, use mood boards to organise their thoughts and, ultimately, stories over the six months ahead.

"If you've been to college it's indoctrinated in you as part of the process," says Cathy Edwards, fashion director of the fashion biannual, Another Magazine. "It's the process via which you make any point. For us, we use it to explain and develop the ideas of the forthcoming season. It's a very effective way to communicate them to a team."

Designers, Edwards says, have not been unknown to transform entire rooms into mood boards. A trip to Giles Deacon's east London studio earlier this year was testimony to this: at time of visiting, he was more than a little preoccupied with rabbits. Images of tiger rabbits, vampire rabbits, rabbits that had been primped and preened to the point where they looked positively alien filled all available wall space, soon to inspire prints for his autumn 2011 pre-collection.

"It's like making a visual map," Edwards explains, "and you can move images around. Often mood boards change and develop day by day."

In the end, it is perhaps the charming, homespun nature of the collage or mood board that today makes it seem so appealing. In an age where the vast majority of research is carried out online and the concept of visiting a library, say, seems not only outmoded but also time consuming to the point of redundant, there is something heart-warming about this singularly old-fashioned way of working.

"It's quite nice to do a raw mood board," Edwards confirms, "where you do actually go to the library and look at books, or search through old issues of magazines, photocopy images, and cut them out and then stick them down. It feels more craft-driven, more creative somehow."

Given Beaton's extraordinarily refined aesthetic sense and panoramic knowledge, not to mention his ability to capture the social and cultural issues of the age he was living in, it's small wonder that his scrapbooks have become works of art in their own right. "The scrapbooks are a vivid journey into the pre-digital era," Danziger writes. "His famous eye alights on society figures, royals, dancers, actors, statesmen, and natives in ceremonial garb ... By turns artful, erudite, gossipy, naïve, sophisticated and totally personal, they present a snapshot of both the mind and state of mind of the magpie intellect and creative wunderkind that was Sir Cecil Beaton."

'Cecil Beaton: The Art of the Scrapbook' is published by Assouline