Cecil Beaton; ‘Theatre of War’ Exhibition

The title of this exhibition, ‘Theatre of War’ is an interesting and clever play on words as in warfare, a theatre is an area or place in which important military events occur or are progressing, a theatre can include the entirety of the air, land, and sea area that is or that may potentially become involved in war operations.[1]  Beaton’s exhibition includes photographs from the war of the Navy, Army and Royal Air Force giving an expansive, fresh and different insight into the war. Not only this but the chosen name is significant as Beaton was also heavily involved in theatre throughout his career.

When I arrived at the Imperial War Museum on the 2/12/2012 I was expecting to see all the same exhibitions I had seen before; the secret war, the holocaust exhibition etc. Upon entering though, I saw advertisements for the Cecil Beaton Photography exhibition. I had never learnt about Cecil Beaton before and had not realised what his work was of, however, looking around the exhibition I did recognise some of his work (Photograph of the Blitz). From the exhibition I have now learnt that Beaton was a British designer, writer, cartoonist, diarist and socialite and despite all this he is best remembered for his work as the leading British portrait, royal and fashion photographer of his day and he was one of the hardest working war photographers of World War Two.


From the large picture of Cecil Beaton at the beginning of the exhibition in a Royal Air Force uniform I can honestly say that I was well and truly captured by his aesthetically pleasing, well-formed and carefully composed photographs from the start. It is an engaging and fascinating display which took me through the work of Beaton from the beginning of his career when he began in fashion and royalist photography right through to the very end of his career which ended in theatre design. It was a London exhibition in 1926 which granted him instant recognition and a contract with Vogue. Having the opportunity to photograph the rich and famous forged his reputation for glamour and capturing a lifestyle many could only dream of.[3]


There are small and large photographs on display; along with exhibits from his diaries. Cecil Beaton was also a published and well-known diarist. In his lifetime six volumes of diaries were published, spanning the years 1922–1974. Recently a number of unexpurgated diaries have been published.[5] This had a great impact as it made the exhibition very interesting to look at and the engaging display enabled me to learn more about such an influential photographer. The display began with a few portraits of his family and himself, through to his work in fashion and portraiture. Following on from this was the large selection of the best of his 7,000 photographs taken throughout the duration of the Second World War from the home front to China and India. Through his photographs, drawings and books as well as his work in theatre and film, this exhibition tells the story of how the war became a personal turning point in Beaton’s career.

The display concludes with a section on the final years of his life when he returned to Fashion and theatre. Unfortunately, he suffered from a stroke and died in 1980 having never seen a major exhibition of his war photography, which is sad considering how talented he was and how much recognition he is receiving for his work now. He appears to have been a fantastic man who accomplished so much throughout his life time.

Beaton was briefly reunited with his work which was being kept at the Imperial War Museum in London, shortly before his death. Describing the experience, he wrote in his diary: ‘Yesterday I went to the Imperial War Museum, not my favourite place, to see the collection of photographs that I had taken during the war for the Ministry of Information. It was an extraordinary experience to relive those war years; so much of it had been forgotten, and most of the people are now dead. Looking at them today, I spotted ideas that are now ‘accepted’, but which, thirty years ago, were before their time. The sheer amount of work I had done confounded me.’[6] Cultural attitudes change over time and it is interesting to see that Cecil recognised this in his work.  He was modest about his work and shocked by how many photographs he actually took during his time.

The photographs which he took for the Ministry of Information in World War Two showed me a side to the war which I have never quite seen before.  His work is unconventional, eye catching and memorable!

I fell for his photographs in a way in which the allies would have during the war; after all, Beaton wanted to capture ‘hearts and minds’ rather than show people the horrors that can occur in theatres of war. Whilst some photographs pull at your heart strings others prove the hard work that had to be done to maintain the war effort. Despite the photographs being of mainly beautiful people (who he often retouched for them to look even more flattering), this merely adds to the attractiveness of his photographs. He had an artistic flare in the way he used lighting and framing in order for the photographs to serve their purpose. His work throughout the war was no doubt used for propaganda purposes.  This artistic flare came from his work within fashion at the beginning of his career which gave the perhaps romantic or nostalgic vision of the war.

[7] war


Photojournalism began in the 1920’s when printing technology had become mature enough and it soon became a massive hit with many photographers. Beaton, however, documented the war in a way unlike other photojournalists, such as Robert Capa who documented the Spanish Civil War or Don McCullin who later documented the Vietnam War whom lead us to believe that all war photographers risk their lives to document the horrifying realities of armed conflicts.  However there is no room for blood, guns, guts or explosives in Beaton’s photographs which are generally of good looking young men and women engaging in graceful or picturesque activities. He chose to document the war in a way which would publicise the war effort and prove to the allies what was being done behind the scenes. Perhaps this is because of the type of war that Britain was fighting in World War Two; the force for good, trying to protect the world from evil? Inspired by theatre, Beaton carefully designed and composed images rather than the imperfect reality of candid reportage, whether in portraits of military personnel or of bomb sites, his work resulted in astonishing images that would have tremendous impact around the world.[9]  Beaton commented, ‘Besides the vandalistic damage, we must show the tenacity and the courage of the people and we do not have to look far’.

Beaton covers a wide range of topics and aspects of the war from ruins to the work force and the defence of Britain. His most notable photograph though was of Eileen Dunne who was an injured three year old in Great Ormond Street hospital during the Blitz in 1940. This photograph created great sympathy for the British, especially from the United States. It appeared on the cover of Life magazine in 1940 in a blatant attempt to try and hasten America’s entry into the war.

[10]eiline dunne

It is important not to merely concentrate on Beaton’s photographs of the home front. Although it is extremely interesting to see what our country was like during the war he also travelled to the Middle East to places such as India, Egypt and China producing yet more excellent photographs from abroad as well. Beaton was a brave, courageous and interesting photographer who wanted to achieve as much as he could as a photojournalist. Beaton was penalised for anti-Semitic comments on a cartoon he produced in New York Vogue which sent his world spiralling. This meant that he had nothing to lose when he was asked to help the Ministry of Information in 1940.


Having studied the exhibition, closely examined the photographs and as illustrated within this review it is clear to me that Beaton was an iconic photographer. Not only was he a brave and courageous war photographer, but he also displayed an exceptional talent in what he is known best for; portrait and fashion photography. It is important that the work of photographers such as Beaton is exhibited in order for people such as ourselves to be able to recognise and appreciate the great work that he produced.

Word Count; 1,438

IWM London is now closed until July 2013. This temporary period of closure is allowing them to safely and securely deliver the most disruptive construction works needed to transform their museum.


The Arbuturian, http://www.arbuturian.com/2012/cecil-beaton-v-and-a, (accessed 07/01/2013)

Cambridge University Press, Cambridge Dictionaries Online, http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/british/theatre_4,   (assessed 24/12/2012)

BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/in_depth/photo_gallery/3438593.stm (accessed 03/01/2013)

Imperial War Museum Online. http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205193603 (accessed 03/01/2013)

Mail Online, The Second World War, by Cecil Beaton, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2199103/Cecil-Beaton-photos-Film-star-photographer-turned-lens-gritty-reality-Second-World-War-stunning-effect.html#ixzz2EAVLPeXL   (Assessed 05/12/2012)

Mail Online, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2199103/Cecil-Beaton-photos-Film-star-photographer-turned-lens-gritty-reality-Second-World-War-stunning-effect.html (accessed 03/01/2013)

Mail Online, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2199103/Cecil-Beaton-photos-Film-star-photographer-turned-lens-gritty-reality-Second-World-War-stunning-effect.html (accessed 03/01/2013)

National Portrait Gallery, http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw66414/Florence-Jane-ne-Thleur-Lady-Alexander-as-Silver-in-Pageant-of-Jewels (accessed 03/01/2013)

Time Out, London, Cecil Beaton; Theatre of War,http://www.timeout.com/london/museums-attractions/event/59591/cecil-beaton-theatre-of-war (assessed 03/12/2012)

The London School of Liberal Arts, http://www.libartslondon.co.uk/5792/cecil-beatons-theatre-of-war/ (accessed 03/01/2013)

Yahoo, Flickr, http://www.flickr.com/photos/53035820@N02/sets/72157624797337787/ (accessed 07/01/2013)

[1]  Cambridge University Press, Cambridge Dictionaries  Online, http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/british/theatre_4 (assessed 24/12/2012)

[2] Imperial War Museum Online, St Pauls Cathedral glimpsed through the smoking ruins of a church after a heavy incendiary raid during the Blitz, 1940. http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205193603 (accessed 03/01/2013)

[3]The Arbuturian,  http://www.arbuturian.com/2012/cecil-beaton-v-and-a (accessed 07/01/2013)

[4] National Portrait Gallery, Florence Jane (née Théleur), Lady Alexander as Silver in ‘Pageant of Jewels’ by Cecil Beaton, http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw66414/Florence-Jane-ne-Thleur-Lady-Alexander-as-Silver-in-Pageant-of-Jewels (accessed 03/01/2013)

[6] Mail Online, The Second World War, by Cecil Beaton:  The film star photographer turned his lens to gritty reality with stunning effect, Chris Parsons, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2199103/Cecil-Beaton-photos-Film-star-photographer-turned-lens-gritty-reality-Second-World-War-stunning-effect.html#ixzz2EAVLPeXL   (Assessed 05/12/2012)

[7] Mail Online, Relaxed: A soldier orders a cup of tea in the Forces Canteen at Victoria Station in 1942. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2199103/Cecil-Beaton-photos-Film-star-photographer-turned-lens-gritty-reality-Second-World-War-stunning-effect.html (accessed 03/01/2013)

[9] Time Out, London, Cecil Beaton; Theatre of War, http://www.timeout.com/london/museums-attractions/event/59591/cecil-beaton-theatre-of-war, (assessed 03/12/2012)

[10] BBC News, Eileen Dunne, injured at the age of three by shrapnel from German air rain, London 1940. The photo generated wide spread sympathy from the USA and was printed on the cover of LIFE magazine. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/in_depth/photo_gallery/3438593.stm (accessed 03/01/2013)

[11] London School of Liberal Arts, The Chief of Police and his men and Police Headquarters, Chengtu, Szechuan Province, China, 1944 by Cecil Beaton, http://www.libartslondon.co.uk/5792/cecil-beatons-theatre-of-war/ (accessed 03/01/2013)


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