In December 1979, the 28-year-old Hugo Vickers, dining with a friend, declared: ‘I see little point to life these days.’ The following day, an editor at Weidenfeld & Nicolson rang to tell him that Cecil Beaton, seriously debilitated by a stroke, was looking for a biographer. Vickers visited Beaton three days before his death in January 1980 and, shortly afterwards, was confirmed as his official biographer. This was to give point, along with glamour and excitement, to his life for the next five years.
Beaton’s sister, Lady Smiley, exhorted Vickers not to make it ‘one of those gossipy books. There’s so much more.’ He followed her counsel and his biography is both a measured account of Beaton’s myriad achievements as photographer, painter, designer and memoirist and a rounded portrait of his rich and at times rackety life. Thirty-six years on, Vickers has published the diaries written during his research for the book, in which gossip abounds.
Beaton himself was an astute, if waspish, diarist, who offended many by publishing six volumes of diaries in his lifetime. It was said that the Queen Mother failed to send a representative to his memorial service because she took offence at his description of her teeth. Vickers has wisely resisted publication of his own diaries until all the principal figures are dead. He can therefore remark with impunity on the art historian John Richardson’s sadism, Laurence Olivier’s lament for his small penis and Enid Bagnold’s removal of her catheter at the lunch table.
The range of Beaton’s activities may have led him to dilute his talents, but it introduced him to a far wider society than if he’d confined himself to one art form. So, Vickers encounters royalty, including the Queen Mother, whose wartime image Beaton played a large part in crafting.