31 May 2011

sitting for Cecil


'All artists speak the same language , so photographers should be considered in terms of artists...' CB

 Mary Cushing Astor by Cecil Beaton

I've often looked longingly at my Cecil Beaton tomes and sighed-what beautiful photographs.
What gorgeous women, what handsome men-the sitters.
What gorgeous backdrops, the settings.
I love Cecil Beaton.
& that must be one of the many reasons I loved the return of Upstairs Downstairs. Cecil visits the residents of 165 Eaton Place in the last episode of the series. Well played by Christopher Harper, Cecil is there to photograph Lady Agnes Holland & her sister Lady Persie. Beaton brings all his charms- mostly spent on "Cook". Beaton also brings his own props to create the perfect setting for the perfect sitting. 

Baba Beaton, Cecil Beaton's sister & one of his favorite sitters

I've noticed the settings- painterly like. It's interesting to note Beaton never had what he called a studio-his idea was not to have one,certainly unusual in the day . He preferred to use his mother's drawing room, later- his own residences or those of his sitters-and true to fiction- he would bring props from drawing rooms and later drawing from his own stash of props expressly for his portrait work. Not one to wait and see what his sitter's rooms might be like-Cecil was prepared, fully armed with the perfect props to create the perfect portrait-screens, settees, silk, netting, pedestal, vase, roses and the like.
& cellophane.
cellophane curtained, draped, twisted, tied and tasseled.

He staged.
He draped.

Norma Shearer by Cecil Beaton

Soap Suds by Cecil Beaton

'My sitters were more likely to be somewhat hazily discovered in a bower or grotto of silvery blossom or in some Hades of polka dots.' CB

The haze of Beaton's tinsel and cellophane props,his costumed & gowned sitters, made Beaton's subjects the envy of every aristocrat. When Beaton sends "Cook" a copy of her portrait-a vision- she looks at it admiringly and declares, “I could be aristocracy!”

Cecil Beaton as Major-General FH Seymour, The Groom of the Robes, at 'The Opera Ball', Metropolitan Opera House New York, April 1933. NPG

Beaton  was known as one of the foremost of the Society photographers by 1930. His own special signature became the doubling up of his sitters- twins, sisters or debutantes or a single sitter reflected in a piano top, mirror or some other clever Beatonesque ploy.

 Baba Beaton

 Paula Gellebrand by Cecil Beaton

 Marlene Dietrich by Cecil Beaton

'We all owe a great debt to Cecil, for keeping the idea of style alive.'  David Bailey

Drawing pictorial paradigms  from Watteau, Fragonard, Gainsborough and Piranesi ,Beaton blew up his work to create backdrops for his photographs. His idea- grandeur without the hauteur. Beaton photographed the Queen and other Royals with these scenes in the background. Not just for the Royals, Beaton used them to create the noble aristocratic image dear "Cook" craved so.

 Doris Duke by Cecil Beaton

image borrowed from Colette van den Thillart at Nicky Haslam Design

 The Famous Beauties Ball, 1931.Miss Baba Beaton (second from left) surrounded by Jess Chattock, Nancy Mitford, and Carol Prickard in enormous pageant dresses. by Cecil Beaton

"As far as possible I avoid allowing modern clothes to appear in a photograph... I try to get my sitters to wear some kind of costume that has withstood the criticism of time-that is located amidst a decor of rosebuds, chiffons & turtle doves."- CB

Marquise de Casa Maury by Cecil Beaton

In one of the scenes from Upstairs, Pritchard the butler confides to the Rose that above stairs there is a “contretemps regarding pastel tones.”  Lady Persie is off  to change her dress &  wear a different shade of lipstick to harmonize with her sister's appearance. Beaton not just fearing to date his work- but to he desired it to escape time.  Friends, painter Rex Whistler and David Garnett, novelist, were idealizing the era they lived in-holding time at bay. It was Beaton's way of shunning Modernism- as he stated it was his attempt 'to decorate a machine with dog roses.'   Some of my favorite Beaton photographs are portraits: A series of photographs of Paula Gellibrand, Marquise de Casa Maury  & photographs of Edith Sitwell.

Both so different- but both exuding that Beatonesque haze of timelessness that few can match.



  1. A legendary artist indeed Gaye, How I wish he were here today.

    Art by Karena

  2. SO beautiful!! What a master1 And I'm embarrassed to say that I missed the entire series of the new Upstairs Downstairs. Hoping I'll be able to catch up this summer!

  3. So many ways I love this.
    Rosebuds, chiffon and turtledoves.

  4. Just finished " The Unexpurgated Beaton" - fascinating read of his diaries. Now reading letters between Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford. So always enjoy your wonderful page when delivering "The English Set".

  5. What a great photographer!
    An absolute beautiful post - just simply good!
    Thank you for your 'work'!
    I particularly love the Marlene Dietrich image!
    Greetings from the Périgord,

  6. I love how in the final photo and the one called "Debutantes" we can see behind the backdrop -- there's the lovely artifice of the photo and everyday life peaks through -- it makes them seem more real -- I can imagine the photographer coming in the house and setting things up and the sitters having a grand time posing so seriously but laughing it up in between poses.

  7. I love his work as well and am so enchanted by how often he photographed his subjects in profile. That doesn't seem to be in vogue as much anymore (I would avoid it myself) but it is so classically beautiful.

  8. I loved the part in Upstairs w/Beaton. It was delicious...I was so happy for the cook that she had that experience. (and the fuss it caused w/Rose, esp., was amusing as well:)

    This was a lovely. Thank you.

  9. Fascinating and beautiful post on Cecil Beaton, I have always loved his photographs. I especially love the ones he took of Nancy Mitford. One of them is on the cover of her novel "The Pursuit of Love," a book I adore.
    I really enjoyed the new "Upstairs, Downstairs" that you mentioned and the episode with Cecil Beaton and cook was absolutely one of the highlights. These images that you have included are so lovely.

  10. F&F- I enjoy putting them together and even more-I appreciate the feedback here

    Mrs B. Karena,- interesting to read about how radical his choice not to have a studio-a huge departure at the time. Mrs. B-def. no profile shots for me.

    Q- I was sorry there were so few episodes, but think they are coming back with more next season.

  11. Giulia, Sunday. Upstairs was a delight and I did prefer it to the earlier offering of Downton Abbey-though maybe I am alone in that from some of the reviews and notices. Cecil Beaton's career span and his documentation of his life's work is a tremendous gift to Us.

    Townhouse-Yes, His quips were legendary and also his stories after the fact!

    Karin-thank you and welcome!He would photograph Dietrich many times.

    Suzanne-I love the anything Nancy Mitford set her pen to-have not read those letters between the pair.

    Pamela- & cellophane, I do love those cellophane curtains.

    I have a wonderful book with some photographs of his mother-who was very lovely that I will scan for all to see when the scanner is resuscitated!

  12. I also see the strong influence of Winterhalter portraits in Beaton's work. Wouldn't it be a thrill to own one of the painted backdrops!

  13. SENSATIONAL POST! Cecil Beaton was a genius! And the photos that you chose are fabulous! Thank you for always bringing such wonderful images to our minds eye.
    Have a great weekend!
    Jamie Herzlinger

  14. I can't get over the cellophane...so smart! And to use such a modern product to portray such ethereal dreaminess is pure brilliance, as was his many uses of reflection...just lovely!
    Wonderful post...
    xo J~

  15. You are always so prophetic. Two days before this post I had pulled my copy of Glass Of Fashion off the shelf, just to get a shot of Beaton!



Related Posts with Thumbnails