January 14, 1904 – Cecil Beaton:
“The truly fashionable are beyond fashion.”
There are so many wonderful things to appreciate about the Netflix‘s The Crown. Peter Morgan‘s scintillating series about the reign of Queen Elizabeth II is a lavish, luxuriant, taffeta-wrapped, jewel-dripping drama that looks as if every penny of its $13-million per episode budget is money well spent. Equal part historical saga and soap opera, it indulges our seemingly endless curiosity about the British Royal Family.
In the final scene from Season One, the Queen posed for official coronation portraits shot by Cecil Beaton (1904 – 1980) who manages to transform her majesty from a handsome, if uninteresting woman, into the glorious and resolute Queen Elizabeth II. Beaton’s official portraits made her an icon throughout the Commonwealth.
On The Crown, when Beaton turns up to shoot a portrait, he does so while unspooling lines from Wordsworth, Tennyson or Shakespeare to set his subjects in a properly glorious frame of mind. In what is my favorite hour of television in 2017, Episode Four of Season Two, Beaton comes to Buckingham Palace to shoot Elizabeth’s sister, Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby), who gives him some art criticism, complaining that his only way to take a picture is to create a fairy tale.
This Beaton, played in The Crown by Irish actor Mark Tandy, had attended Elizabeth’s coronation ceremony, taking notes and making sketches from the balcony. His is the most famous photograph of the Queen, the one we see when we picture her.
Beaton became an unofficial court photographer for the British Royal Family in 1937, after photographing the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Elizabeth’s uncle Edward VIII, who abdicated the throne so he could marry Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee.
That scandalous abdication and the disgraced Edward VIII, which figures in a major plot twist on The Crown, tarnished the image of the Windsors. Beaton is credited with restoring some glory to the Royal family with his photographs.
I have been reading two volumes of Cecil Beaton’s Diaries over the past few years, in small little doses, choosing to read a few entries here and there.
Beaton recalled in his diaries, that he received a call from Buckingham Palace:
“The telephone rang. ‘This is the lady-in-waiting speaking. Queen Mary wants to know if you will photograph her tomorrow afternoon.’ At first, I thought it might be a practical joke, but it was no joke. My pleasure and excitement were overwhelming. In choosing me to take her photographs, the Queen made a daring innovation…my work was still considered revolutionary and unconventional.”
The official portraits were a stunning success, creating a modern image for the Royal Family. In 1942, he photographed Queen Mary‘s 16-year-old granddaughter Elizabeth for the first time. Beaton photographed Elizabeth again for her 18th birthday, and wrote in his diary:
“Princess Elizabeth’s easy charm, like her mother’s, does not carry across in her photographs, and each time one sees her one is delighted to find how much more serene, magnetic, and at the same time meltingly sympathetic she is than one had imagined. One misses, even in color photographs, the effect of the dazzlingly fresh complexion, the clear regard from the glass-blue eyes, and the gentle, all pervading sweetness of her smile.”
Beaton continued taking photos of the Royal Family over the decades, including each of Elizabeth’s children at their christenings: Prince Charles in 1948, Princess Anne in 1950, Prince Andrew in 1960 and Prince Edward in 1964.
Beaton knew and photographed everyone that mattered for most of the 20th century, including Coco Chanel, Albert Camus, Grace Kelly, Marilyn Monroe and the Kennedys.
He was a chronicler of showbiz figures from Noël Coward to Mick Jagger, for whom Beaton had a special passion (Jagger dubbed him “Rip-Van-With-it”).
Beaton left this world in 1980 after spending a lifetime focusing his lens on the most interesting people. Not only did he know and photograph the alluring and important people of the 20th century, but he made them look stunning.
“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.”