Fashion, Culture and Royalty: How Cecil Beaton Captured the 20th Century's Most Iconic Personalities

Cecil Beaton. Marilyn Monroe, 1956
Cecil Beaton. Marilyn Monroe, 1956 | © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s
From the biggest Hollywood stars to Queen Elizabeth herself, Cecil Beaton captured some of the 20th century’s most iconic figures. Spain is holding its first retrospective of the British photographer and costume designer as part of PhotoEspaña 2018, a city-wide celebration of photography. Culture Trip takes a look behind the scenes at the exhibition, a must-visit for fans of fashion, film and photography.

Cecil Beaton (1904–1980) was one of the 20th century’s most famous portrait photographers, snapping everyone from Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe to the British royal family. Also an acclaimed costume designer, he won two Oscars for Best Costume Design for the films Gigi (1958) and My Fair Lady (1964).

Cecil Beaton. Self-portrait, 1930s © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s

Beaton photographed Audrey Hepburn – and dog – in 1963. A year later, he would win an Oscar for designing the sumptuous costumes for Hepburn’s My Fair Lady. After seeing the photos, Hepburn wrote to Beaton: ‘Since I can remember, I have wanted to be beautiful. As I looked at the photos last night, I realised that I was for a while and that was thanks to you’.

Cecil Beaton. Audrey Hepburn, 1963 © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s

Orson Wells photographed in 1937.

Cecil Beaton. Orson Welles, 1937 © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s

Beaton met one of his great idols during a trip to Hollywood in 1932, but he would not photograph Greta Garbo for another 14 years. This photo shoot took place in New York’s Plaza Hotel, with the excuse of taking some passport photos for the notoriously reclusive actress. Beaton said meeting Garbo was ‘one of the most important meetings of my life’ and later even proposed marriage to the star, which she turned down.

Cecil Beaton. Greta Garbo, 1946 © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s

Baroness Fiona Thyssen-Bornemisza, who was one of the most popular models of the era, was a particular favourite of Beaton and regularly appeared in the pages of Vogue and Look. She went on to marry Baron Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, whose art collection now makes up Madrid’s Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum. She was photographed by Beaton in 1966, wearing a crepe dress by Nina Ricci.

Cecil Beaton. Baronesa Fiona Thyssen-Bornemisza, 1966 © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s

Between the 1920s and the 1950s, Beaton was a fashion photographer at Vogue magazine. He went on to photograph Spanish fashion designer Cristóbal Balenciaga in 1962.

Cecil Beaton. Cristobal Balenciaga, 1962 © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s

Beaton photographed Marilyn Monroe in the Hotel Ambassador in New York in 1956. The photographs appeared in magazines, including Look and Harper’s Bazaar.

Cecil Beaton. Marilyn Monroe, 1956 © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s

Barbra Streisand photographed in 1969.

Cecil Beaton. Barbra Streisand, 1969 © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s

Beaton photographed French writer Colette in 1930. He would go on to win an Oscar for costume design for the film adaptation of her novel, Gigi, in 1958.

Cecil Beaton. Colette, 1930 © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s

Francis Bacon in 1960.

Cecil Beaton. Francis Bacon, 1960 © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s

Barbara Hutton, one of the richest women in the world, was photographed in Tangiers in 1961. Hutton was known for her turbulent private life. The heir to the Woolworth empire was married and divorced seven times, including to Cary Grant.

Cecil Beaton. Barbara Hutton, 1961 © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s
Cecil Beaton: 20th century icons © Fundación Canal

Cecil Beaton: Mitos del Siglo XX (Cecil Beaton: 20th-Century Icons) is on at Fundación Canal from May 31 to August 19, as part of PhotoEspaña 2018. Admission is free.