It’s not easy to link this item to our theme of birds and bees. However, some of Cecil Beaton’s best known photographs of Marilyn Monroe show her holding a little bird on one hand. This seems curiously appropriate, as in Middle and Far Eastern cultures, birds are often viewed as symbols of immortality and, in some religious traditions, each bird represents a departed soul. Oh, and there’s also a famous photograph of Cecil Beaton wearing fancy dress, including bee-embroidered breeches. There you go… Now that’s out of the way, what I’d actually like to talk about is the latest exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum – Queen Elizabeth II by Cecil Beaton: A Diamond Jubilee Celebration.
Apparently, Sir Roy Strong once described the relationship between the Queen and Beaton as “the greatest alliance ever forged between crown and camera.” Beaton was instrumental in shaping the iconography of the royal family in the pre-TV era. With his love of lavish costumes, dressing up and fascination for the rich and famous, he flitted effortlessly into the grandiose world of the House of Windsor. But it was his degree in art history, combined with an exceptional creative talent that enabled him to produce some of the most enduring photographs of the British Monarchy.
Although Cecil Beaton was best known as the outstanding royal photographer of his age, he was also a highly regarded fashion photographer and film designer, which probably accounts for the supremely elegant styling throughout his work.
There’s a wonderful photograph of the Queen in a diaphanous gown, set against a winter scene of ice skaters, that's reminiscent of a painting by Rex Whistler. Curator, Susanna Brown, says that the gossamer gown may symbolize the start of a new season – a summer after the long winter of war – and that this photograph could also be a tribute to Beaton’s good friend, Whistler, who died in battle in 1944.
Many of Beaton’s portraits were inspired by the works of great artists including Gainsborough and Fragonard, but he was also a prolific artist himself – producing drawings, paintings and illustrations that were displayed in various exhibitions and books. Some of Beaton’s scrapbooks are also on show at this exhibition, along with his old Rolleiflex camera and other memorabilia – including a personal album of illustrious visitors’ signatures and sketches by the likes of Dali, Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Queen Mother and Greta Garbo:
One section of the exhibition is dedicated to coverage of the Queen’s Coronation in 1953. The V&A have also made a film, which includes an interview with two of Beaton’s Coronation Day assistants, John Drysdale and Ray Harwood, marking their first reunion after 60 years. Ray is said to have confessed that is was he, not Beaton, who actually took the famous photograph of the Queen against the backdrop of The Lady Chapel in Westminster Abbey.
This ‘Sleeping Beauty’ baby photo of Prince Charles and Princess Anne is one of my favourites. It’s interesting to note how the style of photography had changed by the time Prince Andrew and Prince Edward were born. I won’t give away any more – but do go along, as these photographs are some of the most charming and romantic royal images you will ever see.
And you may wish to check out the assorted books, Coronation memorabilia and collectable vintage photographs of the royal family available at ShopCurious too.