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Cecil Beaton

© Roger George Clark / National Portrait Gallery, London

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Cecil Beaton

by Roger George Clark
resin print, 25 July 1978
10 5/8in. x 8 7/8in. (271 mm x 226 mm)
Accepted in lieu of tax by H.M. Government and allocated to the Gallery, 1991
Photographs Collection
NPG x40454

Sitterback to top

  • Cecil Beaton (1904-1980), Photographer, designer and writer. Sitter associated with 361 portraits, Artist associated with 1112 portraits.

Artistback to top

  • Roger George Clark (1943-), Broadcaster; photographer and journalist. Artist of 42 portraits, Sitter in 1 portrait.

Placesback to top

Events of 1978back to top

Current affairs

The country is brought to a virtual standstill as workers in the private and public sector strike over the government's decision to restrict wage increases. As more workers joined the strikes rubbish piled up in the streets, petrol stations ran short, and storage space had to be hired for unburied coffins. The period became known as the 'winter of discontent'.

Art and science

Louise Brown from Oldham in Greater Manchester becomes the world's first 'test-tube baby'. The 'in vitro' fertilisation procedure was a scientific breakthrough that has given thousands of infertile couples the opportunity to conceive.
Iris Murdoch wins the Booker prize with her novel. The Sea, the Sea.

International

Karol Józef Wojtyla becomes Pope John Paul II. He was the only Polish Pope and the first non-Italian Pontiff since the 16th century. During his 26-year pontificate, John Paul was recognised for his efforts to reach out to other religions and his fight against poverty and oppression. He has also, however, been criticised for his conservative attitudes towards divorce, contraception, homosexual marriage and the ordination of women priests.

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Roger George Clark

06 January 2020, 04:37

CECIL BEATON - RGC PORTRAITS - 25 JULY 1978 _ I took this photo and the other Beaton photos that bear my name. But some I allude to in the text are missing! Please contact so we can fill in the gaps.


‘Old age is a shipwreck’, wrote General Charles de Gaulle. The French President was right. Old age can be a nightmare. And meeting the renowned English society photographer and artist Sir Cecil Beaton later in life proved an ordeal. I had long wanted to photograph Cecil Beaton, but when I did it was almost too late. He was not only old, but ill. The sitting was fraught with difficulties.

In 1974 Beaton suffered a massive stroke. The dapper figure, who had dashed through life photographing royalty, the fashionable and the Second World War – who designed stage sets and costumes, won three Oscars, and wrote coruscating diaries – was transformed. Paralysed down one side of his body he could walk only tentatively in shuffling steps with the aid of a stick. His right hand was withered and twisted like the Kaiser’s. The man who spent a lifetime arranging sitters in elegant poses now found he could no longer control his own limbs. When he sat down his arms and legs contorted themselves at strange angles and had to be pushed into place by somebody else to make them look normal. He needed help to rise from a chair and was exhausted by any exertion. Speech became difficult.

Most people would have given up in despair. But Beaton didn’t. He fought back. He learnt to write, albeit shakily with his left hand, and again took up drawing, watercolors and oil painting. He insisted on taking photographs. Once he went to a studio in a wheelchair, was lifted out and propped up behind his tripod. Suddenly he lost his balance, collapsed on the floor and sent the tripod flying. He was picked up and went on taking pictures. And when people sent him letters, instead of asking his secretary to type a reply, he often wrote back in his own hand. Those who think of Beaton merely as an exotic product of the fashionable world should remember the courage he showed at the end of his life and the steely determination he showed throughout his career.

I met him twice. On the first occasion – 16 September 1976 – I went to his Wiltshire home to record an interview for BBC radio. It was a limited success. Beaton was only spasmodically coherent. Sometimes the words would flow; at other times he would lose the thread of what he was saying and dry up. Reluctantly I abandoned broadcasting the interview as it would harm his reputation.

A couple of years later, however, as his 75th birthday approached I thought of a solution. Why not transcribe the interview and incorporate the best quotations in an article written for The British Journal of Photography? In that way I could produce a coherent piece of writing. But I would need some portraits to go with it. Beaton had refused to have his photo taken during my first visit, but now he agreed.

So, on Tuesday 25th July 1978, I caught a train to Salisbury. Beaton lived in Reddish House, an 18th-century manor house in the village of Broadchalke, about half an hour’s drive away from the station. As my taxi swung through the gateway of Reddish House I could see his secretary, Eileen Hose, standing at the bottom of the steps waiting to greet me.

Inside the entrance hall, grey marble pillars ran up to the ceiling and beside the front door stood a Rolleiflex on a tripod. I put my equipment on the floor and Eileen led me into the drawing-room where the blinds were drawn. It was an elaborate room with fluted pillars and crowded with furniture and pictures. A plaque of Louis XV was fixed to one wall, while a sword and a pile of sketch-books rested on a table in a corner. For a moment I felt as if I had entered the Dickensian world of Miss Havisham until the blinds were thrown up and light flooded in. It was still too dark, however, to take photos by natural light so we made our way into the garden where I searched for suitable settings.

After a few minutes I returned to the hall and sat and waited. I could hear Sir Cecil’s high-pitched voice in the distance. This was followed by a shuffling sound. Moments later he appeared at the top of a flight of stairs leaning on a stick with a silver handle: ‘Good morning,’ he said with a radiant smile. ‘How nice of you to come.’

He was immaculately groomed – wearing a white cashmere cardigan, with a pink scarf tied about his neck and highly-polished brown brogue shoes. Tottering down the steps he paused for a moment at a table by the garden door: ‘Shall I wear this?’ he asked, taking up a wide-brimmed straw hat. Hats hide bald heads and make people look younger so I readily agreed. Out we went onto a terrace decorated with urns, green garden furniture and festoons of flowers spreading over the walls and along a path. We reached a chair and Eileen helped Beaton to sit down.

‘I see you use a Rolleiflex’, he said as I began shooting.

I said I found it the easiest camera to use.

‘So do I.’

It was a fellow-photographer George Hoyningen-Huene who in 1933 suggested Beaton acquire a Rolleiflex. This small, portable camera transformed his work. A ground glass viewing screen made visualising a picture and focussing easy. And 6cm X 6cm negatives could enlarge to exhibition size. Beaton could travel anywhere with this camera and some of his greatest pictures were taken with a Rolleiflex.

Unfortunately, the chair Sir Cecil was sitting on was too low and his legs were contorted at strange angles. The sun was shining brightly casting unsightly highlights and shadows so we decided to move a hundred yards away to the other side of the garden. Beaton found it impossible to rise on his own and I had to lend a hand and support him under his left armpit while he leaned on his stick. We couldn’t make it first time and had to try again – and again – until Sir Cecil rose unsteadily to his feet. Then with slow, deliberate steps as he leaned on me for support we shuffled over the grass to a curved stone seat in the shade that stood in front of a hedge.

I helped him sit down and posed his hands carefully to conceal his twisted fingers. He took up a typical Beaton pose, head turned to one side, body at an angle I’d seen him use in many of his portraits, including Mrs. Simpson in the 1930s.

I was anxious to avoid taking the kind of ghoulish images Richard Avedon and Diane Arbus delighted in producing. Not for me the brutal, unflinching, pitiless, exploitative and misanthropic portraits these image-mongers churned out. I wanted something more subtle and sympathetic. But could I grasp a moment when some magic would happen, his illness would drop away and I could catch him as he looked in his prime?

I took full-length pictures of Beaton facing the camera and in profile and then decided to move in close and photographed his head and shoulders. To ensure an alert and intelligent expression he would glance away from the camera and then look back into the lens as I counted: ‘Three, two, one’ – click.

The result was an intense stare – the artist’s gaze. ‘I live by my eyes’, he once said. Beaton had the same penetrating gaze I noticed when photographing another artist – the sculptor Henry Moore.

In his writing Beaton often pretended he knew nothing about the technicalities of photography. But as I snapped away he asked what film I was using, what shutter speed and aperture and nodded with approval. It was a reminder that he really did know what he was doing. During the Second World War he travelled the globe with a single Rolleiflex and never used an exposure meter. He judged the light level by eye.

We got on famously and enjoyed ourselves. I asked him who was the most difficult person he had photographed? ‘Churchill’ was the reply. ‘He hated having his picture taken, was uncooperative and would never allow you enough time ... He would just bark at one and yap a one and make horrible noises. That was his way of showing that he was displeased about photography!’

Unfortunately, some flies came buzzing round Beaton’s head and he had to flap them away with his hand. Sir Cecil staggered to his feet again and we moved to another part of the garden where I photographed him against a vista of flowers and shrubs. Again he was bombarded by flies so we shuffled off to another part of the garden. As we hobbled along I wondered whether he missed all the bustle and excitement of London? He said he missed it terribly and longed to get back. He asked about my job in BBC radio where I worked as a producer and broadcaster. Eileen appeared with a basket full of flowers and showed us a superb red rose which we both admired. Eventually, we came to a small garden hidden away behind a gate in a corner by the house where we found a grey stone statue of a woman on a pedestal blowing a trumpet. More photos.

I took some pictures framed in the door leading to the garden where he had photographed the Hollywood star Greta Garbo and we finally ended up in the winter garden. Here – amid an elegant tangle of green vegetation, with plants creeping up gothic window frames and across the floor, amid exotic plants, bamboo arches, large ornamental pots and baskets hanging from the ceiling – Beaton used to sketch and paint. And here, as I found out later, he photographed David Hockney, Leslie Caron, countless models including Jean Shrimpton, and Bianca Jigger sprawled on the tiles by the lily pond. I produced some atmospheric shots. Then the session was at an end. In the space of an hour I’d taken 84 photos. We made our way into the adjoining drawing-room where two glasses of sherry were waiting for us – a large glass for me and one half full for my host.

For the next 20 minutes we chatted as I waited for my taxi to arrive, Sir Cecil talking about the royal family and saying what a wonderful person the Queen Mother was. As far as Queen Elizabeth II was concerned he didn’t always approve of her hats – something Her Majesty would rectify in later years as she got older.

During my previous visit Beaton had talked about his first opportunity to take pictures at Buckingham Palace in 1939 on the eve of the Second World War. His subject was the Queen – later Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother: ‘I was commanded by the Queen to go there to see the set-up and I had to get all the preparations done in time. And the next afternoon, having spent the morning with her, choosing dresses, I went to take the photographs. There was a lengthy sitting and every sort of cooperation was given. It was a great triumph. It was a wonderful excitement for me because I admired her so much. She put on all sorts of special dresses, and dresses that she wore for a garden party were put on for the garden settings. Altogether it couldn’t have been a more wonderful experience – one that lives with me in spirit – because I felt there was going to be a war fairly soon. By the time the pictures were allowed to be published, war had been declared.’

Some of the pictures showed the Queen in a long, white flowing dress. They were romantic and broke away from the traditional Court photographs, where everyone stood stiffly to attention and glared at the camera. I told Sir Cecil I remembered one particularly that he had taken in the Blue Room, where a shaft of sunlight burst through a window and … (here Sir Cecil interrupted me ) … ‘ and suffused the Queen’, he said. ‘She was sitting very quietly and demurely in a picture dress and suddenly the whole room was lit up by vibrant lights.’ The daylight was supplemented by artificial lights placed low near the floor. ‘This photograph was a picture of lights within lights’, said Sir Cecil.

After the pictures indoors, Beaton went down into the palace garden and a few minutes later the Queen appeared in a champagne-coloured dress, carrying a parasol. ‘I only had to suggest a movement,’ he said, ‘and that was carried out particularly well.’

His career took a new direction during the six years of war when he became Britain’s most famous official photographer for the Ministry of Information. When peace came he took the first pictures of Prince Charles and in 1953 came one of the highlights of his career – the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II: ‘I made great preparations because an enormous amount was expected of one. I had backgrounds put at various points in the room we were going to use – the Green Drawing-Room in Buckingham Palace. But when the pictures were taken it was a question of madness, really. I was absolutely mad. I trusted that my assistants had got control because I was just rushing around madly like an ape, hoping that I’d got some pictures. I didn’t know, for instance, if I were picturing people in colour, or black and white. I just didn’t notice until the whole sitting was over and I went to see the pictures at two o’clock in the morning.’

We talked about photographing Marlene Dietrich – ‘She was very definite about how she wished to be portrayed’. Then there was the elusive Greta Garbo who disliked having her photo taken and with whom he had brief love affair – ‘She doesn’t think she’s beautiful now,’ he said wistfully. ‘But she is beautiful and always will be.’

When he started taking photos he admitted borrowing ideas from many people, including the Victorian pioneer Juliet Margaret Cameron: ‘I admired Mrs. Cameron enormously and copied her pictures right and left when I first started off. I did all sorts of fancy things. I put people under strange domes. I photographed balloons, people reflected in tabletops – they were not necessarily straight cribs, but a certain amount of intention was brought from other people’s work.’

And over his lifetime he assembled large scrapbooks filled with images culled from magazines, newspapers and elsewhere that inspired and fed into his work.

Critics accused him of snobbery, but there was more to him than that. He liked beautiful people who had talent: ‘I like people who are wonderful and rare,’ he told me, ‘and people that are scarce and difficult to manage. I like every sort really.’

Although Beaton is now recognised as one of the masters of 20th-century photography his reputation fluctuated during his lifetime. His first book – "The Book of Beauty" – excited mixed reviews when published in 1930. Beaton told me that Lady Cunard, who was featured in the work, was disgusted by it and created a scene: ‘She put a red hot poker through the book and threw it on the fire…’

Fifty years later when James Danziger published a compendium of Beaton’s life’s work he told me it was initially met with indifference: ‘I know when I brought a dummy of the book into "The Sunday Times" for the first time the designer and picture people said “Oh no – Beaton. We don’t particularly want to see this.” And it was only after they’d seen it a couple of times that they began to be aware of his enormous range.

‘I was showing it to various people who were looking at it without much enthusiasm when Don McCullin came in. Don looked over everyone’s shoulders as I was flicking through the pages and said, “Look at the light on that picture there” and “Look at how this…” Don is a very respected photographer obviously completely the opposite of Beaton as he’s a tough war photographer – but as he pointed out the good aspects of these photographs everyone in the group started to see them too. By the tine we had reached the last page there was a general hum of appreciation, but it certainly hadn’t existed at the beginning.’

Now we can see the totality of his work Beaton’s reputation is assured and has grown since his death. In the early days he was sometimes shown in by the servants’ entrance. He now seems more important than he did during his lifetime – a career spanning half a century when he caught the spirit and people of the age. Digital processing and computers have enabled more subtle images to be produced from his negatives than was possible in the old darkrooms and have given his photos a new lease of life.

I sent him a few proofs from our sitting and waited in trepidation for his response. Would he like the pictures I had taken? I found out when a letter arrived on Wed 16 August 1978. It was full of exclamation marks and the handwriting was shaky as he had to write with his left hand:-

‘Dear Mr Roger Clark,

I send you the best congratulations! It is an outstanding feat that you have performed – the profile and the two sitting pictures are not up to much – but the other four are outstanding! My letter confirms their excellence! They are beautiful, and I give my congratulations.

Many thanks for sending them you me
Yours sincerely
Cecil Beaton.’


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Roger George Clark – January 2020

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