By a fine coincidence, two legendary icons of British art were being feted in London on the same evening last month, and both are primarily famous, to the public at least, for their depiction of the Queen. At the National Portrait Gallery, the director Sandy Nairne hosted a dinner to celebrate the portrait oeuvre of Lucian Freud, while the Victoria and Albert Museum opened its major exhibition of Cecil Beaton’s lifetime lensing of Elizabeth II.
In the 1950s these two artists were the epitome of London society. Beaton, by way of his groomed exquisite taste and laconic manner, was the epicene idol of sophisticated drawing rooms; the nascent Freud, 30-odd, untidy, brooding, supremely sexual, was a magnetic talisman for every smart hostess’s house, and often her bed. It is quite clear, from reading biographies of the period, that when either appeared, conversation momentarily stopped, resuming on a heightened level.
The canny Beaton recognised Freud’s allure, and soon asked him to dinner (at the V&A, the latter’s name can be seen below Henri Cartier Bresson and Francis Bacon in Beaton’s star-studded visitor’s book at one such dinner in 1951) and also to pose (something Lucian was incapable of doing, it must be said), though it is perhaps telling that the resulting photographs do not appear in this paperback; most magazines, even three decades ago, when this book was first published in hardback, preferred less gritty subjects.
But though Freud had yet to achieve his supreme dazzling stature, Beaton, due to his photography, his drawings, his stage design, his film work and his writing, was already a legend. And Beaton in Vogue, containing as it does a huge cross-section of all these talents, shows exactly why. Of course there are all the famous faces and events of the 20th century. There are also delightful line drawings of people and places, each one demonstrating Beaton’s acerbic eye and cartoon-like facility of draughtsmanship: others, of the wartime Far East, for example, illustrate the quite considerable bravery needed to fly for hours in juddering prop planes to remote imperial outposts, with landmines and black widow spiders threatening his delicately desert-booted feet.
His camera work alternates, sustained right to the end of his career, between a kind of impish, almost amateur vision, and a more severe, studied romanticism.
His work is strangely unfashionconscious; chic, certainly, but not defining modishness season by season. And even in close-up, his portraits lack the invasive cruelty most of the following wave of photographers went in for.
Not that Beaton couldn’t be cruel; his writing — and one of the joys of the book are the many pages of columns and articles he wrote exclusively for Vogue — certainly has a cutting edge. But that is a result of his gimlet awareness of the frippery and foibles around him rather than from any slashing of his nose to spite his face. His critical faculty was always to the forefront. Even those he revered came in for a drubbing — ‘her mouth being knife-like, and lips perpetually moistened by her adder-like tongue’ about his inamorata, Garbo, who playfully called him ‘Beattie’, is hardly the perceived view of the world’s most famous ‘recluse about town’ as Gore Vidal succinctly put it.
Beaton also writes with easy vividness. In a thumbnail of Audrey Hepburn (whose legendarily elegant skin looks worryingly acnefied on the cover shot) he describes her ‘child-like head, as compact as a coconut with its cropped hair and whispy, monkey-fur fringe’, which sounds like an early Freud drawing. And Mona Harrison Williams had a complexion of ‘pink, and wet, marble’.
While this refreshing and vivacious publication is happily timed to coincide with Beaton’s seemingly unending cache of court comings and goings, it is touching to see that it was originally published in his lifetime. Though by then he was manfully coping with the effects of a serious stroke, he was able to recall in what esteem he held, and was held by, his sitters, from Queen to commoner. And now a whole new generation can esteem him too.
More Spectator for less. Subscribe and receive 12 issues delivered for just £12, with full web and app access. Join us.