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Cecil Benton: Beneath the Glitter

SATURDAY 7th February 2004

London's National Portrait Gallery is celebrating the centenary of the birth of one of the world's most successful portrait and fashion photographers. For five decades, Cecil Beaton used his flattering lens and acute eye to turn celebrities into timeless icons.

The recent publication of his diaries, however, sees him surrender vanity for venom about his subjects and must make exhibition visitors wonder if this enduring aesthete had in his hands a camera that lied.

Early career

Beaton was a master of self-invention. Raised in Hampstead by his timber merchant father, he nursed an early fascination for clothes, appearances and stylish things. His first forays into photography were as a teenager, when he snapped his finely-dressed sisters and sent the results into local newspapers.

After a Harrow and Cambridge education, Beaton partied with London's best. Although he distinguished himself as a war photographer, film and theatre designer, it was his wit and own sense of style - always wearing suits a dapper size too small - that really secured his passage through the city's glitterati.

Mixing with the glitterati

Despite feeling "speechless inferiority" before Noel Coward, Beaton possessed the same ease in wide circles. The British royal family asked him to record any major event. Film stars dined with politicians at his Wiltshire home. Although gay, he even had an affair with Greta Garbo. The great and the good queued up to be photographed and Beaton, with his air-brushing kit at the ready, did his best to bring out their best side.

But if his portraits greatly flattered, his diaries did not. The photographer published several editions in his own lifetime but, keen to maintain his social position, reduced these accounts to flattering palimpsests. Only recently have his "unexpurgated" opinions been revealed.

He was forensic in his analysis of his subjects' failings. Prince Charles may have been "touchingly beautiful" but he called the Queen Mother a "pink fluffy cloud" and described Wallis Simpson as behaving like "a mad Goya". Laurence Olivier was "an inferior being" and Elizabeth Taylor went down in his book as "a great thick revolting mass of femininity".

Views of Cecil Beaton

Knowledge of Beaton's attitudes must lead to a more complex appreciation of his work, for he used the same powers of observation to elevate his subjects on film as he did to reduce them on page. Perhaps we should simply enjoy an artist at work and, as one critic put it, "count ourselves lucky for never having met him".