A most elegant parade as unseen Beaton portraits go on show

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When Cecil Beaton was asked if there was anyone left he wished to photograph, he answered with typical grandeur: "The Pope."

In the half century before the question, Beaton had captured practically every glamorous figure in the world of celebrity, fashion and the arts, with his images achieving iconic status.

An exhibition opening at the National Portrait Gallery today to mark the centenary of his birth will reveal a significant number of previously unseen works.

The gallery's walls offer a roll call of the great, the good and the merely famous - invariably captured in poses of the utmost elegance. From film, there is Audrey Hepburn, Marlon Brando, Fred Astaire, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. Other arts are represented by Albert Camus, T S Eliot, Truman Capote, Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol. There is the Queen and Churchill and a smattering of maharajahs.

A photograph of Marilyn Monroe is displayed in the silver Cartier frame in which it was presented to her, with a glowing eulogy in Beaton's own hand. It was the gift of Joshua Logan, after he had directed the new Mrs Arthur Miller in the film, Bus Stop .

And with the exception of the Monroe, which is in the hands of a private collector, the show's curator, Terence Pepper, said yesterday that the collection could have belonged to the nation for the relatively measly sum of £100,000. Beaton offered the archive to the National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1976, four years before he died, after he had been forced to give up work because of a crippling stroke. But the money could not be raised - not least because photography was not as valued an art form as painting or sculpture.

"There wasn't the Heritage Lottery Fund or arts bodies so many photographic collections were sold off," said Mr Pepper. "The awareness of photography didn't start until the late Seventies even though we tend to take it for granted now."

Instead, the archive was bought by Sotheby's auctioneers which has retained thousands of prints and negatives but recouped the cost by selling part of it.

The auction house has lent the gallery most of the photographs in the new exhibition, which is the first major overview of Beaton's portraits since a show, also at the National Portrait Gallery, in 1968. However, Sotheby's is also holding its own exhibition of Beaton's most celebrated images, printed on a grand scale, from Tuesday.

Mr Pepper, who met Beaton in 1978, said he was the greatest British portrait photographer of the 20th century. "He was around for the whole century and had access to the movers and shakers of each period," he said.

Beaton was born in January 1904 and showed an early interest in photography even before he went to Cambridge to study art, history and architecture. Neglecting his academic studies, he concentrated on acting and stage design, something he would return to 30 years later with the musical, My Fair Lady . By 1925, his pictures were being published in magazines such as Tatler .

The exhibition shows how he rapidly became a feature of British high society. Highlights include unseen pages from his snapshot album of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor's wedding.

There are definitive portraits of stars, from the Sitwells in the 1920s to the Rolling Stones in the 1960s as well as his official portraits of members of the Royal family. But he also produced more sombre work during the Second World War when he was an official war photographer.

Mr Pepper said Beaton had reinvented his photographic style when faced with the challenges of a new decade. In the 1960s, for instance, he worked with some of the era's hippest figures including David Hockney, Jean Shrimpton, Rudolf Nureyev and Mick Jagger.

The works on show at the National Portrait Gallery are the simple prints of the photographs that Beaton sold to magazines to make his living. He never produced the fine art prints which make fortunes today for photographers such as Mario Testino, who was expected at the private view last night. Testino, who is renowned for his celebrity shots, said Beaton had been a "great inspiration, not only for his amazing aesthetic, but for the documenting aspect of his work". He added: "He not only explored fashion but covered many aspects of society, such as decor, architecture and portraiture. He conveyed a personal sense of style that has influenced many people, including me."

The exhibition, which is sponsored by Herbert Smith in association with Sotheby's and Vogue , runs until 31 May with an admission charge of £7 or £4.50 for concessions.