10 of the Most Famous Cecil Beaton Photos

Cecil Beaton self-portrait in Calcutta, India

Cecil Beaton self-portrait in Calcutta, India (Wikimedia Commons).

“Be daring, be different, be impractical, be anything that will assert integrity of purpose and imaginative vision against the play-it-safers, the creatures of the commonplace, the slaves of the ordinary. All I want is the best of everything and there’s very little of that left,”

Cecil Beaton

Achieving fame in the early to mid-20th century meant accolades, wealth, and having your portrait taken by Cecil Beaton. From Audrey Hepburn to Marlene Dietrich and Marilyn Monroe to cultural figures like Truman Capote and Mick Jagger, Cecil Beaton photos combined the splendour of historic royal portraiture with the intimacy of photography to immortalise celebrities and even transform the reputation of the British Royal Family.

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Beaton’s portraits defined fame in the early 20th century and helped shape the public image of Hollywood’s Golden Age. As one of the most renowned fashion photographers of the 20th century, Beaton’s flair, style, and staging set the template for all aspiring photographers. Influenced by the Modernist and Art Deco movements, Beaton’s masterful compositions embraced bright colors (even in black and white) and eye-catching backdrops. He rose to prominence in the 1920s as a photographer for Vogue and soon became highly sought after for his signature cinematic style that led him to become photographer for the British Royal Family, for whom he produced distinguished portraits of Queen Elizabeth II for over 30 years.

The playful aesthetic of Cecil Beaton photography offered a magnetic sense of the sitter’s character, while his superb aesthetic eye and flair for the theatrical allowed him to remain relevant over a 50-year career that not only transformed fashion photography into an art form, but also changed fashion photography forever. Here are 10 of his best.

Marlene Dietrich (1935)

Cecil Beaton, Marlene Dietrich.

Cecil Beaton – Marlene Dietrich. Sold for $375 via Freeman’s (May 2018)

Famed for her androgynous style, Beaton reversed expectation with his series of portraits of Marlene Dietrich that recalled classical sculpture thanks to the German-born star’s sharp, sculptural features. Dietrich’s exaggerated body language and jewellery references her role as a performer, while the portrait highlights Dietrich’s famously pale complexion. It was a portrait evocative of its time and can be compared to Man Ray’s photographs of Kiki de Montparnasse.

Salvador Dali and his wife, Gala (1936)

By 1936, Salvador Dalí and Beaton were in a creative ascendancy. Dalí married in Paris, 1934 and first visited the United States in the same year where he held an exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery, which was a commercial and critical success. His surrealism was captivating to US audiences and he delivered three lectures at the Museum of Modern Art in which he famously said, “The only difference between me and a madman is that I am not mad.” Beaton’s portrait of the couple encapsulates the painter’s surrealist art and the relaxed nature of the sitting.

Katherine Hepburn (1940)

Cecil Beaton - Katherine Hepburn.

Cecil Beaton – Katherine Hepburn. Sold for $19,200 via Sotheby’s (June 2004)

It’s clear there was only one Hepburn in Beaton’s life and it certainly wasn’t Katherine. “She is the egomaniac of all time,” he wrote his diary. “A raddled, rash-ridden, freckled, burnt, mottled, bleached and wizened piece of decaying matter.” He wasn’t shy about expressing himself and also said of Katherine Hepburn, “Her personality is so forceful that she appears to be ill-mannered and high-handed,” and this is reflected in the sulking, moody, yet atmospheric portrait he produced for her.

The Blitz (1940)

Eileen Dunne in her Great Ormond Street Hospital bed

Eileen Dunne in her Great Ormond Street Hospital bed (Picryl)

At the outbreak of World War II, the Queen recommended Beaton to the Ministry of Information where he swapped his customary glamour for atmospheric war reporting, and in the process captured one of the most enduring images of British suffering during the war. That was three-year-old Blitz victim Eileen Dunne in her Great Ormond Street Hospital bed, clutching her teddy bear tight. The photo appeared on the cover of Life magazine and is said to have helped push for America’s involvement in the war.

Wing Commander Neil (1940)

Unlike much war photography, Beaton avoided documenting the gory aspect of conflict. Instead, there was a playfulness and humanity to his compositions that captured the people involved in fleeting moments of normality. It’s reminiscent of a playful photo among friends, but this is Wing Commander Thomas Francis ‘Ginger’ Neil, a survivor of the Battle of Britain who recorded a total of 14 kills during World War II.

Queen Elizabeth II (1942)

Cecil Beaton, portrait of Princess Elizabeth.

Cecil Beaton – Portrait of Princess Elizabeth. Sold for £3,200 via Bonhams (December 2020)

In 1936 King Edward VIII abdicated after just 326 days on the throne and left for France with the American socialite, Wallis Simpson. It was a huge scandal and the Royal Family desperately needed to soften their image (sound familiar?), which Beaton achieved with a series of angelic portraits of the young Queen Elizabeth II, who was still a princess when she first sat for Beaton. Over the next three decades he photographed the Queen on many occasions, including her Coronation Day in 1953. The telephone rang, “This is the lady-in-waiting speaking. The Queen wants to know if you will photograph her tomorrow afternoon” wrote Beaton in his diary, 1939. “In choosing me to take her photographs, the Queen made a daring innovation… my work was still considered revolutionary and unconventional.”

Marilyn Monroe (1956)

Cecil Beaton, Marilyn Monroe. Sold for $9,600 via Julien’s Auctions (April 2014)

Cecil Beaton – Marilyn Monroe. Sold for $9,600 via Julien’s Auctions (April 2014)

One of the most celebrated photographers of the 20th century met the icon of 20th century cinema just the once at the Ambassador Hotel in New York, February 1956, but this one sitting produced a treasure trove of uninhibited, relaxed portraits that revealed Monroe’s playful personality. In his diary, he wrote, “The initial shyness over, excitement has now got the better of her. She romps, she squeals with delight, she leaps on to the sofa. She puts a flower stem in her mouth, puffing on a daisy as though it were a cigarette. It is an artless, impromptu, high-spirited, infectiously gay performance.”

My Fair Lady (1964)

Having won a Tony Award for Best Costume Design for My Fair Lady in 1957, Beaton repeated his success for the big screen version, which won Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design at the 1964 Academy Awards. Audrey Hepburn is immortalised as Liza Doolittle in typically eye-catching and elegant surroundings that match her beauty. “She’s a good girl, she is.” Beaton’s artistic creativity can also be seen in the charcoal and watercolor drawing of Hepburn in her signature Ascot dress that attracted significant at Sotheby’s in 2013.

Coco Chanel (1965)

Cecil Beaton, Coco Chanel.

Cecil Beaton – Coco Chanel. Sold for $3,818 via Bonhams 2 (April 2004)

Fashion is not simply a matter of clothes. Fashion is in the air, born upon the wind,” said Coco Chanel and Cecil Beaton’s portraits of one the ultimate fashionistas exudes high fashion from her Paris apartment. Filled from floor to ceiling with antiques, Beaton still manages to fix Chanel as the central figure of the busy composition thanks to her intense pose and a suit that contrasted with her backdrop. Chanel clearly appreciated Beaton’s art as she sat for him on eight occasions.

Twiggy (1968)

Cecil Beaton, Twiggy.

Cecil Beaton – Twiggy. Sold for €300 via Finarte Roma (December 2015)

An icon of Swinging Sixties London, Beaton placed the model Twiggy on a pedestal in his London home to draw parallels between her beauty and that of art, while the low camera angle allows viewers to look up to her, which exaggerates her significance. In the color edition, the orange dress contrasts with the wall behind, while the vertical lines of the doorways mirror and amplify Twiggy’s slim form. The portrait demonstrates Beaton’s versatility and represents a marked change from his earlier, more flamboyant staging.

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Sources: National Portrait Gallery | V&A Museum | The Guardian | Tatler | Artsy | Vogue | Wikipedia | TheArtStory | Sotheby’s | Vickie Lester