Cecil Beaton, the bitch

A review of ‘Cecil Beaton: Portraits and Profiles’, edited by Hugo Vickers. Katherine Hepburn had ‘rocking horse nostrils’; Mae West was a ‘nice little ape’. The photographer was a natural writer – and snob

20 September 2014

9:00 AM

20 September 2014

9:00 AM

Cecil Beaton: Portraits and Profiles edited by Hugo Vickers

Frances Lincoln, pp.287, £30, ISBN: 9780711235502

Beaton was the great inventor. Apart from inventing not only himself but his look, his voice, his persona and a glamorous family, he invented the a in photography, the Edwardian period for the stage and films, the most outré of costumes, the elaborate for his rooms, a cartoon-like simplicity for his drawings, and the dream of being a playwright and painter. What he didn’t need to invent was being a writer, at which, as his many books, and particularly this one prove, he was a natural.

His lifelong observance of the world around him gave him the power to describe on paper, always acutely and often superbly, landscapes, cities, colours, nature. And of course people. He was a snob but not snobbish. Alice B. Toklas (‘fatter and more hirsute’) noted that while the young Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent, was wildly enamoured of him, Beaton preferred the distinctly distrait allure not only of Greta Garbo — ‘incapable of love’ and pictured sitting glumly on a sofa in wellingtons (surely a template for that recent Vogue cover of Posh Spice?) — but also, it has recently been suggested, a tougher tumble with ‘pallid as a mushroom’ Marlon Brando.

He could hone in on the fineness or flaws of friends or foes with a pen not dipped in scented flattery or wounding venom (except about Coco Chanel), but with enough vinegar to give piquancy to his words. He astutely sums up the-then Mrs Simpson’s ‘rugged mouth’, and paints an indelible word-picture of the young Katharine Hepburn, with ‘her beetroot coloured hair and rocking-horse nostrils’, though later he might have been more derisive. I once saw him stick his tongue out at her receding snarling figure after a particularly stormy Coco costume discussion. Mick Jagger’s skin is ‘chicken breast white’, Mae West he found ‘a nice little ape’, and in the teenage Princess Margaret he observed ‘no interim between a shut, serious mouth and a flashing grin’, an early, and neat, summing up of her ‘girl-with-a-curl’ personality.

The Beaton industry has been working overtime this year, what with a brilliantly original exhibition of his life in his two Wiltshire homes, Ashcombe and Reddish, at the Salisbury Museum, and another of more familiar photographs wittily mounted by Jasper Conran at Wilton House. But Hugo Vickers has crowned it with this beautifully produced — pace some rather cod attempts at imitating Beaton’s own carefully achieved, wonky handwriting for the headings — volume of his most iconic sitters. It contains no images of his travel and war work, to achieve which he showed astonishing bravery — night-flying, strapped into creaky bombers to battle situations in, say, Libya, is hardly the activity one associates with the creator of these polished portraits. There aren’t many we haven’t seen before though a candid shot of Stephen Tennant in (where else?) bed seems unfamiliar if not exactly visually fresh. And while they encompass his, and indeed — except for the very young — our age, Beaton’s words frequently speak as loudly as his actions.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £24. Tel: 08430 600033

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • Fergus Pickering

    All the best people are snobs. Faced with the ghastliness on every side from untutored oiks, snobbery is the only defence. Plus a good dose of racism.

    • Chris Morriss

      But not quite so camp, please.


      Couldn’t agree more Fergus. Any one worth their salt is a snob – otherwise known as picking and choosing our company. And some people prefer the best.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    “Cecil Beaton, the bitch”
    Don`t you realise that word is totally forbidden in politically over-correct UK? Why, some of my best contributions have been deleted for that alone.

    • Roger Hudson

      Bitch, like queer, can be only used in an ‘in’ referential way. Those of us not so ‘blessed’ mustn’t use such words.

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        Excuses are like assholes. Everybody got one.

  • Solage 1386

    All middle class people are snobs. They cannot help themselves. Should we condemn them for this trait? No. Pity is a more apt response.


      Soalge – Patronising, much, you Solage? These days snobbery is known as “networking”- that is, choosing your companion, work contacts, and even your friends amongst those who can help you get on in life. Also known as ambition. Cecil Beaton – and most of us – had his way to make in a highly competitive world with not very much to help him except innate intelleigence and a hefty amount of talent. But talent is not enough if you don’t have the right contacts. Beaton certainly chose his lovers from a very wide spectrum; not a lot of snobbery there.

      • Miss Floribunda Rose

        Homosexual middle class men of this period were often attracted to working class males, generally youths. Hence the “wide spectrum”. But this was also due to snobbery, though well disguised.


          Floribunda- it might surprise you to know, in your innocence, that homosexual,middle class men are STILL attracted to “working class males, generally youths”! And snobbery has nothing to do with it. It may also surprise you to know that “working class” people can be just as attractive and loveable and worth having a relationship with as any one else. I think it is you who are betraying deeply ingrained snobbery.

          • Miss Floribunda Rose

            I AM working class, from the roughest, toughest of council estates! Middle class people ARE snobs (almost without exception–especially the left wing type). A working class and an upper class person could get on with each other much more easily than a middle class and a working class person ever could. I used to be a prostitute in my teenage years and have mixed with all sorts of people, and being highly observant, I could not help but notice the ways in which the different classes……mingle, shall we say…..Hence my present opinions as to the psychological and sociological bases of middle class snobbery! It’s too complex to explain fully and in depth here, and I can’t be bothered to do so to tell you the truth, but middle class people regard working class people as “other”, which is one of the main reasons why they are attracted to them, rather in the same way as some men are attracted to, for example, Thai Brides! I don’t mind snobbery, by the way…….it is simply human nature. I’m unable to feel it myself, but I do not object to its presence in others. I am quite simply, in my innocence, musing! The truth is the truth, wherever it may lead us, and no matter how counter-intuitive or surprising it may at first appear…..We must simply accept it.

        • MarkSebastian

          Are you insinuating what everyone knows about Beaton’s taste for young flesh?

  • therealguyfaux

    One is put in mind of the story of Alice Longworth, a grande dame of Washington DC high society– she was the daughter of Theodore Roosevelt (and hence cousin to both Franklin and Eleanor as well) and the wife of the House Speaker Nick Longworth; who can forget her famous admonition to her guests, “Just remember– if you have nothing nice to say about anybody, sit next to me, and let’s gossip!”?

    • Ted_Fontenot

      When Alice Roosevelt found out that FDR had an affair with Lucy Mercer, she commented: “Of course, he deserved a good time. He was married to Eleanor.”

      Alice was a hellcat even when TR was President. She kept sticking her oar in at high level meetings in the White House. When officials complained to TR, her father cut them short: “I can either run the country or I can attend to Alice, but I cannot possibly do both.”

  • ‘he invented the a in photography’ ? The what? ‘hone in’ or home in?

    And surely the word that fits is not pace but ‘despite’.

  • Kitty MLB

    I reealy must buyy this book itt sounds hilarious