Cecil Beaton was as colourful as the sets, costumes and interiors he designed. Best known for his work on the films My Fair Lady and Gigi, he looms large in the memory – for several reasons.

Depending on your age, you may know him for the fact that, in 2001, Madonna and Guy Ritchie bought Ashcombe House, where Beaton lived from 1930 to 1945 and entertained all the greatest luminaries of his time; or for the fact that Evelyn Waugh bullied him at school; or for his camera’s iconic capturing of the Bright Young Things or the wedding photographs of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

From Grace Kelly and Winston Churchill to Mick Jagger and Jacqueline Kennedy, Beaton photographed anybody who was anybody from the 1920s – when he was hired by Conde Nast – until the late 1970s. He counted both the arts patron Peter Watson and Greta Garbo as lovers.

Always ready with a quip, Sir Cecil said things in his lifetime that resonate today. His aesthetic ideals were rigorous. He took no prisoners. He lived for beauty and amusement.

It was his view that: ‘Perhaps the world’s second-worst crime is boredom; the first is being a bore.’
He summed up his modus vivendi when he said: ‘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.’

He was knighted in 1972, had a debilitating stroke two years later and died at home in Wiltshire, four days after his 76th birthday, in 1980.

Here, we have trawled his vast archive and come up with clips of Beaton’s greatest ever moments.

Main image: By Cecil Beaton

Desert Island Discs, 1980

Desert Island Discs

Recorded at home as Beaton’s health failed, this episode aired after he died and is one of the great Desert Island Discs of all time. His music choices are civilised and divine, while his recollections of the upper crust are just as pleasing. Best of all, ever a man of good taste, he chooses a cashmere shawl as his luxury for the island. Classic. Tune in here.

Cecil Beaton’s Visitors’ Book, 1930s-1970s

There can be few visitors’ books that contain the signatures and sketches of as many world-famous notable people as Cecil Beaton’s. In this clip, we get a good look – by kind permission of his family – at the book he kept while he lived at Ashcombe House for all those years and later at Reddish House, where he died. Watch it here.

BBC Face To Face Interview, 1962

In this interview with the BBC’s John Freeman, we hear about Beaton’s artistic endeavours from the horse’s mouth. He doesn’t always play ball and his clipped tones really are from another era but it is gripping to hear him on his ‘idyllically happy childhood’, early influences, complex relationship with his father, hatred of boarding school and visual flair. Watch it here.

Beaton By Bailey, 1971

Charming, crackling footage and shots of old family photographs, as well as excellent music choices, weave their way through this documentary made by the photographer David Bailey about Beaton. There is plenty of Beaton, in full snobbish dandy mode, talking to camera. Here, the waspish raconteur is at his best. We also hear from friends and relations including Cyril Connolly and Beaton’s sister Lady Smiley. The mega aesthete sure didn’t mind talking about himself… Watch it here.

Cecil Beaton: Beneath The Glitter, 2004

This documentary encapsulates the legacy of the great photographer, who sprinkled magic over his well-heeled subjects. It reminds us how impossible it is to overstate his importance as a chronicler of twentieth century British society. As one featured historian says: ‘Making beautiful images of beautiful people was everything to him’. Mario Testino is there, paying homage. Leslie Caron, who played Gigi in the film that brought him so much fame, says: ‘He was afraid of bad taste.’ His jaw-droppingly catty, unexpurgated diaries are much quoted. Delicious thought it all is, it’s hard to believe he was for real. Watch it here.

Nicholas Hoare For PBS, 2018

In this clip, decked out in a bowtie and silk dressing gown (of which Beaton himself would presumably be proud), the immaculate US book reviewer Nicholas Hoare sings the praises of Beaton and his endless diaries. Standing in his well-appointed drawing room, beside a grand piano, Hoare calls the diaries ‘standards of their type’. We get extracts (Beaton calls Coco Chanel a ‘swine’); we get insights into Beaton’s unforgiving wit; we want to lose ourselves in the diaries thereafter. Anyone else feel a Beaton obsession coming on? Watch it here.

By Becky Ladenburg
July 2021

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