Cecil Beaton - Theatre of War

March 19, 2014

Cecil Beaton - Theatre of War


“It was extraordinary to see the bar scenes, the men on leave, swigging beer, and how I had been able to ‘frat’ with such unlikely types.”

Cecil Beaton, 1974 - reviewing his past work at IWM

It is the charismatic characters and iconic figureheads who truly shape British history that interest us here at R/E. Those who not only mastered their profession but completely rewrote the rules, sparking a new wave of thinking across the nation.

Photographer Cecil Beaton was one of these people.

A designer, writer, cartoonist, diarist and socialite who loved theatre in all its forms, Cecil Beaton is best remembered as the leading British portrait and fashion photographer of his day. His glamorous, elaborately staged photographs of royalty and twentieth century celebrities reflected his theatrical tastes and saw publication in magazines, newspapers and books throughout the world.

Marilyn Monroe by Cecil Beaton | Realm & Empire

Yet Beaton’s role as one of Britain’s hardest working war photographers during the Second World War is less well known.  As an official photographer for the British Ministry of Information he travelled far and wide to document the impact of war on the people and places he visited, all captured in his unique, theatrical style. In later life, he came to regard his war photographs as the single most important body of his photographic work.

His first assignment was a series of portraits of British war leaders, including an image of Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the height of the Battle of Britain that has since become a part of the popular iconography of the War.

Winston Churchill by Cecil Beaton | Realm & Empire

The Blitz, the defence of Britain and the domestic war effort dominated Beaton’s early war photography. Photographs such as the portrait of Eileen Dunne, a small girl recovering in hospital after being injured in an air raid, had enormous impact at home and overseas.

In 1942 Cecil Beaton was sent on his first official overseas assignment to the Middle East, sailing in convoy to West Africa and crossing the continent by air to reach British headquarters.  After an introduction to the exoticism of Alexandria and Cairo, Beaton left on a tour of British forward bases in the Western Desert.

Before the Battle of El Alamein, Cecil Beaton | Realm & Empire

Although this was a distinctly unfamiliar and uncomfortable working environment, he relished the experience. His photograph of a desert sandstorm, taken shortly before the Battle of El Alamein, demonstrated Beaton’s ability to create an iconic image in even the harshest of conditions.

WW2 Fighter Pilot, Cecil Beaton | Realm & EmpireFighter Pilot & Plane, Cecil Beaton | Realm & Empire

Beaton’s outstanding wartime work for the Ministry amounted to over seven thousand photographs, which now form part of IWM’s collection of war photography.  It is a truly extraordinary body of work that we cannot recommend highly enough.

"Be daring, be different, be impractical, be anything that will assert integrity of purpose and imaginative vision against the play-it-safers, the creatures of the commonplace, the slaves of the ordinary."

Cecil Beaton

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