CECIL BEATON (1904–1980) IS REMEMBERED as a chronicler and habitué of high society. One of Britain’s leading fashion and portrait photographers, he burst onto the scene when he was still in his 20s with shots of the royal family, Fred Astaire, Marlene Dietrich, and other stars of the 1920s and 1930s. All the while, he indulged in the same luxuries and elegant living that his subjects enjoyed. Friends thought him a dandy.
When World War II broke out, however, Beaton put aside the good life and aggressively lobbied the British Ministry of Information to do the grubby work of covering the war. Before the fighting was over, he had taken some 7,000 photos, capturing the British under siege on the home front and traveling to the Middle East, India, Burma, and China.
Misplaced in an archive for decades, his war work was only recently rediscovered. The Imperial War Museum in London is presenting more than 100 of the photos in the exhibit Cecil Beaton: Theatre of War, through January 1, 2013.
Beaton was perhaps the unlikeliest of war photographers; he later won three Oscars, two for My Fair Lady’s costumes and art design. And his photos are not the typical blood-and-grime shots. Sailors and nurses look like matinee idols. Scenes of London’s destruction resemble a well-designed West End stage. There’s no blood, no sorrow or weariness. To Beaton, it seems, even something as horrible as war could be given a high gloss.