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Cecil Beaton, the bitch

A review of ‘Cecil Beaton: Portraits and Profiles’, edited by Hugo Vickers. Katherine Hepburn had ‘rocking horse nostrils’; Mae West was a ‘nice little ape’. The photographer was a natural writer – and snob

20 September 2014

9:00 AM

20 September 2014

9:00 AM

Cecil Beaton: Portraits and Profiles edited by Hugo Vickers

Frances Lincoln, pp.287, £30

Beaton was the great inventor. Apart from inventing not only himself but his look, his voice, his persona and a glamorous family, he invented the a in photography, the Edwardian period for the stage and films, the most outré of costumes, the elaborate for his rooms, a cartoon-like simplicity for his drawings, and the dream of being a playwright and painter. What he didn’t need to invent was being a writer, at which, as his many books, and particularly this one prove, he was a natural.

His lifelong observance of the world around him gave him the power to describe on paper, always acutely and often superbly, landscapes, cities, colours, nature. And of course people. He was a snob but not snobbish. Alice B. Toklas (‘fatter and more hirsute’) noted that while the young Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent, was wildly enamoured of him, Beaton preferred the distinctly distrait allure not only of Greta Garbo — ‘incapable of love’ and pictured sitting glumly on a sofa in wellingtons (surely a template for that recent Vogue cover of Posh Spice?) — but also, it has recently been suggested, a tougher tumble with ‘pallid as a mushroom’ Marlon Brando.

He could hone in on the fineness or flaws of friends or foes with a pen not dipped in scented flattery or wounding venom (except about Coco Chanel), but with enough vinegar to give piquancy to his words. He astutely sums up the-then Mrs Simpson’s ‘rugged mouth’, and paints an indelible word-picture of the young Katharine Hepburn, with ‘her beetroot coloured hair and rocking-horse nostrils’, though later he might have been more derisive. I once saw him stick his tongue out at her receding snarling figure after a particularly stormy Coco costume discussion. Mick Jagger’s skin is ‘chicken breast white’, Mae West he found ‘a nice little ape’, and in the teenage Princess Margaret he observed ‘no interim between a shut, serious mouth and a flashing grin’, an early, and neat, summing up of her ‘girl-with-a-curl’ personality.

The Beaton industry has been working overtime this year, what with a brilliantly original exhibition of his life in his two Wiltshire homes, Ashcombe and Reddish, at the Salisbury Museum, and another of more familiar photographs wittily mounted by Jasper Conran at Wilton House. But Hugo Vickers has crowned it with this beautifully produced — pace some rather cod attempts at imitating Beaton’s own carefully achieved, wonky handwriting for the headings — volume of his most iconic sitters. It contains no images of his travel and war work, to achieve which he showed astonishing bravery — night-flying, strapped into creaky bombers to battle situations in, say, Libya, is hardly the activity one associates with the creator of these polished portraits. There aren’t many we haven’t seen before though a candid shot of Stephen Tennant in (where else?) bed seems unfamiliar if not exactly visually fresh. And while they encompass his, and indeed — except for the very young — our age, Beaton’s words frequently speak as loudly as his actions.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £24. Tel: 08430 600033

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