Cecil Beaton Theatre Of War

It’s that hinterland between Christmas and New Year and I decide to go to the Cecil Beaton exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, before it closes as the new year begins.

Boy, he liked drama. The early sections of the exhibition show the epic glamour of the life he was born into, a child surrounded by ornate women in dresses like the one he famously maximised for Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. They show his early experiments with multiple exposure and surrealism, like the images of poet Edith Sitwell with five or six versions of the shot surrounding one smudged face.

By the mid 1930s, he’s got himself a reputation as highly talented, highly-strung and difficult. People didn’t care, lapping up his tantrums and demands in order to be immortalised, Godess gorgeous. Then he scribbled a nasty antisemitic phrase in the margins of an illustration in Vogue and was fired. His apology, preserved in a vitrine with press cuttings about the incident, claims he’d written it as a ‘silly joke’ after watching some bad films, and exudes a shame and isolation that suggests he recognised and genuinely regretted his actions.

War breaks out in ’39. He offers his services to the Ministry of Information and soon he’s working as a war photographer, showing the impact of Nazi bombing on buildings and lives. The pictures are pure film-set drama, with gorgeous architectural lines and sweeping curves of rubble and a terribly lonely image of a newly homeless woman sitting at a table by herself.

He says it himself, in a quote etched on the wall.  “Often the bare walls or the struts of a hangar lent themselves as usefully to a pictorial scheme as any more calculated effects of decoration”. In the pictures of shipbuilding in the North East, there are welding masks that look like industrial sci-fi costumes.

The images that stick in my mind come from the latter part of the exhibition when he travelled to photograph troops in India and across the Middle East. One is of a sailor repairing fabric at a sewing machine. He glares at the lens, eyes hooded in shadow, accusing the viewer. Sewing machines have honestly, truly, never looked so hard as they do here. The second is of British Liaison Officers sheltering under camouflage netting in Burma in 1944. The light shines through the holes and overlays an Escher chequerboard over the whole thing – and as you look up, in the far right hand corner of the image, there’s a person leaning out of a window, unexpected as a chip shop in the desert.

One final thought, inspired by the footage of his post-war work designing film sets and costumes: Cecil Beaton would have LOVED Leigh Bowery.

Go if you can. It closes on January 1st. More info here.


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