Portfolio: Cecil Beaton

 

He is known as a documenter of high society and glamour: the man who shot the Windsors, Grace Kelly, Vivien Leigh; Picasso, Dietrich, Churchill, Twiggy; whose aesthetic sensibility was affronted by the newly coronated Queen's nose being too red, Audrey Hepburn's neck too scraggy and Great Garbo's hands as having done too much washing up.

Yet it was his work during the Second World War, shooting throughout Britain, the Middle East, India, China and Burma, that Cecil Beaton is said to have considered his most important. Commissioned by the Ministry of Information, he took 7,000 photographs between 1940 and the end of the war; of leaders and the great unwashed; soldiers in the field and civilians at home; traditional communities in the Far East on the brink of radical change and those in Blighty shattered by bombs.

Conducting a survey of Bomber and Fighter Commands for the RAF, he became one of the period's most elegant propagandists. For wherever he was stationed, Beaton remained a stylist, carefully composing his masterpieces, in stark contrast to the rushed reportage of his peers. Perhaps it is for that reason that Beaton was the only photographer during the war always credited whenever his work was published. Perhaps.

Yet, whatever reputation for self-aggrandisement Beaton might have had before the war was mitigated by a respect he won during it, not least for his refusal to be cowed by an air crash, dengue fever, the bombing of his London home – and his remarkable diarising of the conflict.

Cecil Beaton: Theatre of War is at the Imperial War Museum, London SE1 (iwm.org.uk), from Thursday to 1 January

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