Cecil Beaton (1904-1980) was a British designer, writer, cartoonist, diarist and socialite who loved theatre in all its forms.
But he is chiefly remembered as the leading British portrait and fashion photographer of his day. Beaton’s glamorous, elaborately staged photographs of twentieth century royalty and celebrities reflected his theatrical tastes.
Less well known is the fact that Beaton was one of Britain’s hardest working war photographers during the Second World War.
As an official photographer for the British Ministry of Information, Beaton travelled far and wide to document the impact of war on people and places in his own unique style.
In later life, Beaton came to regard his war photographs as his single most important body of photographic work. He took some 7,000 photographs for the Ministry of Information covering all aspects of the Second World War.
The home front 1940-41
Beaton's first assignment was a series of portraits of British war leaders, including an iconic image of the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, at the height of the Battle of Britain in 1940.
The Blitz, the Defence of Britain and the domestic war effort dominated Beaton’s early war photography.
Photographs such as the portrait of a small girl, Eileen Dunne, recovering in hospital after being injured in an air raid had enormous impact at home and overseas.
Beaton's early war photography resulted in three books. History under Fire (1941) considered the impact of the Blitz on Britain's cultural heritage, while Air of Glory: A Wartime Scrapbook (1941) and Winged Squadrons (1942) concentrated on RAF Fighter and Bomber Command.
The Middle East 1942
In 1942, Cecil Beaton was sent on his first official overseas assignment to the Middle East.
After an introduction to the exoticism of Alexandria and Cairo, Beaton toured British forward bases in the Western Desert, Iran, Iraq, Palestine, Transjordan and Syria. He produced a memorable series of beautifully composed images which made spectacular use of the local light. Subjects ranged from dramatic abstract studies showing the detritus of war to ordinary people posed against the extraordinary settings of the Middle East theatre of war.
These were published in magazines around the world as well as another book by Beaton himself, called Near East (1943).
Tyneside Shipbuilding 1943
Returning to Britain in mid 1942, Beaton was soon on the move again. He spent months documenting British war production, which by then was reaching its zenith.
A spectacular series of photographs on Tyneside ship construction in 1943 document an industry which would largely disappear after the war.
East Asia 1943-44
Beaton's last major assignment for the MoI was a six month tour of the East Asia, during which he travelled to India, Burma and China. This trip produced more publications but took a heavy toll on Beaton. He narrowly escaped injury when his aircraft crashed on take-off, and again when a vehicle ran off the road in China. He fell ill on several occasions and was consistently frustrated by inefficient bureaucracy, including the loss of 250 rolls of film. Nevertheless, Beaton’s beautiful photographs from East Asia rank among the best of his career. They offer an insight into traditional communities poised on the brink of change as well as the experience of British and Empire military forces there.
After The War
Cecil Beaton's work for the Ministry of Information reinforced his international reputation as a photographer.
The war also enabled Beaton to fulfill his longstanding ambition to work in the theatre by laying the foundations for his award-winning career in theatrical design.
When his wartime photographs were transferred to the permanent care of the Imperial War Museum in 1948, he was uninterested.
However, Cecil Beaton was briefly reunited with his war photography in a visit to the Imperial War Museum in March 1974.
‘Yesterday I went to the Imperial War Museum, not my favourite place, to see the collection of photographs that I had taken during the war for the Ministry of Information...It was an extraordinary experience to relive those war years; so much of it had been forgotten, and most of the people are now dead; the Western Front, where at least three hundred of my pictures were unaccountably lost, Burma, India, China. It was fascinating to see the scenes in old Imperial Simla, the rickshaws drawn by uniformed servants, the grandeur of the houses, the palaces, the bar scenes, the men on leave swigging beer, and to wonder how I had been able to ‘frat’ [fraternize] with such unfamiliar types. The horrible war had taken me to beautiful landscapes I might not otherwise have seen. I had not realized that I had taken so many documentary pictures, some of purely technical interest. Looking at them today, I spotted ideas that are now ‘accepted’, but which, thirty years ago, were before their time. The sheer amount of work I had done confounded me.’
This elegiac account forms one of Beaton’s final entries in his diary. Weeks later, his long and brilliant career as a photographer and writer was brought to an end by a debilitating stroke. Cecil Beaton died in 1980, without having ever seen a major exhibition of his war photography in peacetime.
The Cecil Beaton Collection - Licensing & Framed Prints
IWM is the copyright holder of Cecil Beaton’s wartime photography which is available to purchase and license for use in commercial projects. You can also browse a wide range of Cecil Beaton art prints with custom framing options via IWM Prints.