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Cecil Beaton Portraits

Cecil Beaton Portraits

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MAY 2006

Photographer Cecil Beaton (1904-1980) was renowned for his images of elegance, glamour and style. His influence on portrait photography was profound and lives on today in the work of many contemporary photographers such as David Bailey and Mario Testino.

Organised by the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London, Cecil Beaton: Portraits is the first major overview of Beaton’s portraits since Sir Roy Strong’s ground-breaking exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in 1968. Cecil Beaton: Portraits attracted the second largest exhibition audience on the NPG’s record and also met with wide critical claim when touring Scotland and Australia.

As much a legend as many of his subjects, Cecil Beaton was one of the most celebrated British portrait photographers of the 20th Century. This major retrospective of Beaton’s work, said Gallery Curator Peter Vangioni, is exclusive to the Christchurch Art Gallery, being the first and only opportunity to see Beaton’s work in New Zealand.

Cecil Beaton: Portraits is at the Christchurch Art Gallery from 27 May to 10 September 2006.

The exhibition brings together more than 100 portraits from the five remarkable decades of Beaton’s career, including images never seen before. Beaton captures 50 years of fashion, art and celebrity, from the Sitwells in the 1920s to the Rolling Stones in the late 1960s. Definitive portraits of 20th Century celebrities are shown alongside more sombre works from his time as a war photographer.

“Cecil Beaton understood the power of creating iconic images,” said Guy Pask, Creative Partner at Strategy Design & Advertising, principal exhibition sponsor. “He carefully worked these photographs, crafting them in terms of lighting, propping, and composition, even retouching them to remove imperfections. You could say he was helping to promote the ‘brand’ of those who posed for him.

“These photographs are ones that have helped shape the public’s perceptions of some of the most famous people of the last century. As such, they are as much promotional pieces as works of art. Cecil Beaton helped foster the cult of celebrity with these portraits.”

Highlights of the exhibition include Beaton’s 1956 portrait of Marilyn Monroe, from her own collection, which is accompanied by his handwritten eulogy about her. Pages from Beaton’s snapshot album of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s wedding, showing idyllically situated portraits of Wallis Simpson in the grounds of the Chateau de Cande, France, are on public display for the first time.

Beaton acquired his first camera aged 11 and the exhibition opens with a portrait of his sister, Baba, taken a few years later, in 1922. A number of vintage prints from Beaton’s first exhibition (1927), notable for their striking red Beaton signature, have been reunited, including a celebrated portrait of Edith Sitwell posed as a gothic tomb sculpture. Edith Sitwell and the family’s patronage confirmed Beaton’s position as the most fashionable young photographer of the day and led to a number of exciting commissions, including a contract with Vogue, with whom Beaton was associated for more than 50 years.

Other significant portraits from this early period include Nancy Cunard in front of a polka dot backdrop, the writers and poets Sylvia Townsend Warner, Stephen Tennant and Siegfried Sassoon, and bright young things including the Jungman twins, Tallulah Bankhead and three young debutantes posing as Soapsuds.

The exhibition also features work taken from Beaton’s first four Hollywood visits including images of Gary Copper, Loretta Young, Marlene Dietrich and Johnny Weissmuller, preparing for his first Tarzan film. Other works from the 1930s include French subjects taken in Paris, such as fashion designers Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli, and artists Beaton befriended, including Jean Cocteau and Pablo Picasso.

Beaton received the ultimate establishment seal of approval when he was commissioned by the Royal Family in 1939. The exhibition includes two studies of HM Queen Elizabeth (the late Queen Mother) of Buckingham Palace, taken in dappled light and offering a fairytale romance.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, Beaton devoted himself to his work as an official war photographer. The Home Front is represented by pictures of land girls and Beaton’s unforgettable portrait of the three-year-old blitz victim Eileen Dunne (1940) in a hospital bed in the north of England. During this period Beaton also captured wartime artists, such as the poet Cecil Day Lewis, composer Benjamin Britten and the memorable study of the elderly Walter Sickert and his wife Therese Lessore in their garden near Bath in 1940.

In the post-war period, Beaton photographed existentialist writers Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre in Paris, and emerging actors in America, the 21-year-old Marlon Brando and Yul Brynner and the reclusive Greta Garbo, the subject of Beaton’s long-term romance.

In 1956 Beaton started work on the costume designs for the first version of My Fair Lady for the American stage with Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison and was to continue with the production in its various forms until his Oscar-winning work for the film version starring Audrey Hepburn in 1964. In the midst of this he also won an Oscar for his work on another great film musical Gigi (1957) with Leslie Caron.

In the 1950s Beaton produced many of his most famous portraits of women including Audrey Hepburn, Maria Callas, Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly and Ingrid Bergman. Male subjects included Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, John Betjeman, Sugar Ray Robinson, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr, and Dean Martin.

It is testament to Beaton’s flexibility and skill that he reinvented his photographic style for a new decade. In the 1960s, he was revitalised by working with some of the era’s brightest cult figures such as David Hockney, Jean Shrimpton, Rudolf Nureyev and most importantly Mick Jagger. Up until a paralysing stroke in 1974, Beaton continued a punishing work schedule, whether working on the Barbra Streisand’s film On a Clear Day You Can See Forever or photographing Warhol and his entourage in New York.

The exhibition concludes with Beaton’s late poignant portraits of Ralph Richardson and Louise Nevelson, and a recumbent Bianca Jagger photographed in the conservatory of Beaton’s home of Reddish.

Cecil Beaton: Portraits at Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu

Worcester Boulevard, Christchurch, 27 May to 10 September 2006

Admission: $12/$10/children free.

PRESS VIEW – Thursday, 25 May from 11am to 1pm at Christchurch Art Gallery.


Beaton Gala Opening Glitterati, Friday, 26 May from 8pm to midnight

Tickets $120 per person

Strategy Advertising and Design - Principal Exhibition Sponsor

The Tasman Charitable Trust – Season of Photography Principal Funder

The Press – Season of Photography Media Partner

Aalto Colour – Season of Photography Paint Sponsor

Ballantynes and Untouched World – Promotion Sponsors


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