Saturday, January 18, 2020

Nerves before a sitting

It’s 40 years to the day since Cecil Beaton died. A famous photographer and costume designer, he was also a significant diarist. His self-edited diaries were first published in six volumes while he was still alive but, since his death, various ‘unexpurgated’ collections have also appeared. Whether heading to the BBC for an interview as a young man, or in his 60s preparing to photograph Picasso or the Queen, both of whom he knew from previous sittings, Beaton uses his diary - among other things - to confess nerves and insecurities.

Beaton was born in 1904, in Hampstead, London, the eldest son of a successful timber merchant. He was given a camera when still young, and used it to take photographs of his sisters. He was educated first at Heath Mount (where he was famously bullied by Evelyn Waugh), then at Harrow and St. John’s College, Cambridge. Even before finishing his studies, he had set up his own photography studio.

He soon developed a reputation as a fashion photographer, working for magazines such as Vanity Fair and Vogue. He also photographed celebrities, and members of the Royal Family for official publications. During the Second World War he worked for the British Ministry of Information as a documentary photographer. On one assignment he was sent East to photograph the Empire and its allies at war. After the war, Beaton designed sets, costumes, and lighting for the Broadway stage, and for Hollywood films. He was knighted in 1972. Two years later he suffered a stroke that left him partly paralysed. He died on 18 January 1980. See Wikipedia, Huxley-Parlour, or the V&A for more biographical information.

Beaton began keeping a diary while still a boy and kept the habit for most of his life, though he didn’t start publishing his diaries until the early 1960s. He carried on until the early 1970s, creating a set of six, each one with a similar sub-title, as follows: The Wandering Years (1922-1939); The Years Between (1939-1944); The Happy Years (1944-1948); The Strenuous Years (1948-1955); The Restless Years (1955-1963); The Parting Years (1963-1974). In London, they were published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson, and in New York by Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

A decade after his death, in 1991, Oxford University Press brought out two books based on Beaton’s work for the Ministry of Information during the war: Chinese Diary and Album and Indian Diary and Album. And, more recently, there have also been two books promising Beaton’s unexpurgated diaries: The Unexpurgated Beaton: The Cecil Beaton Diaries As He Wrote Them, 1970-1980 (preview some pages at Amazon), and Beaton in the Sixties: The Cecil Beaton Diaries As He Wrote Them, 1965-1969.

Hugo Vickers, who provides an introduction to both the ‘unexpurgated’ volumes of diaries and who is one of Beaton’s biographers, gave a brief summary of Beaton the diarist (in a more general article) to The Guardian: ‘As a diarist, he tried to preserve the passing moment in aspic, but there was more to it than that. Aware that he had rare access to the people he photographed, he trained himself to make pen portraits of these figures, who were closely observed and their foibles uncomfortably recorded. He was never without a marbled book with blank pages in which to scribble at free moments. His memory was good and his pen sharp. Some of his images are very funny, some unkind, but he is never dull. And nor does he spare himself in these pages. Another diarist, James Lees-Milne, thought of Beaton’s diary as a particularly spiky spike on which to be hoisted to posterity, while John Richardson thought he had ‘a homosexual’s flair for seizing on the zeitgeist’.’

See The Diary Junction for links to a few diary extracts. Here, though, is the young Beaton (taken from The Wandering Years).

June 1926
‘I’d been wondering lately if I couldn’t get a job talking on the radio. I wrote to the BBC offering my services, and received a summons to be tried. In fear and trembling, all bunged up with a bad cold, I found my way to the broadcasting place. This really was an adventure! I hadn’t told anyone except N and B. I was interviewed by a tall, rough man named Sieveking. He said, ‘Read!’ Suffering from acute embarrassment, I started to drawl a bit of a short story I’d written. But I had hardly got going before he shouted, ‘Stop!’ I couldn’t think what disaster had occurred. ‘No, I’m afraid it’s no use. Your voice just isn’t any good!’

‘Couldn’t you hear me?’ Yes, Sieveking said he could hear me very well, but mine was a voice that didn’t ‘take’. I asked, ‘Does a cold make any difference?’

‘It would.’

‘Well, I have a bad cold.’

At last Sieveking confessed, ‘It’s no good pretending. With most people I beat around the bush and make false excuses. But if you won’t be grossly insulted, I’ll tell you just what’s wrong.’

‘Yes, I’d be interested.’

‘Well, when you’re broadcasting you’re talking to the masses. These people don’t like being talked down to or patronised.’ What he was trying to say was that I had an over-cultured up-stage sort of voice! This was a bitter shock for me. I’d always thought I spoke in a less affected way than my friends. No, Sieveking stood firm. I didn’t speak English as it should be spoken. I talked with an Oxford accent.

‘Surely not! I went to Cambridge.’

Sieveking then gave me an imitation of my voice. It sounded so exaggeratedly high-class as to make me almost sick! Why, I talked just like the silly ass in musical comedy - the nut with spats, large buttonhole and eyeglass! I felt annoyed, but flattered that the man had told me the truth. I said I could easily get rid of my faults if I practised, and would come again when my cold was better. I’d better try to talk to the masses in a straightforward way.

I came home and ate worms. Hell and damn!’

24 August 1936
‘It was on one of these mornings that the breakfast tray brought with it a fatal telegram: ‘Daddy gravely ill. Come.’ In a flash, everything changed. My mood, my life, the colour of the room, the significance of everything altered.

Since I was very small, I had always wondered what would happen if one of my parents died. The mere contemplation of such an event brought tears to my eyes. Now it had materialised in absentia, and it hurt sufficiently for me to cry. In a few minutes I got through to London on the telephone. My mother was suffering greatly, and wailed hysterically for me to come. My father had died of a heart attack at dawn. . .’

And here is Beaton in his sixties (taken from Beaton in the Sixties).

28 April 1965
‘It is strange that at an age of over 60, I should be able to work myself into such a nervous condition at the idea of photographing Picasso. I was certainly extremely on edge. I remember when I first photographed him in the early thirties, at that time I could speak very little French. . .’

18 September 1968
‘. . . I felt I must try to get a new picture of the Queen . . . Martin Charteris rang from Balmoral to say the Queen was not averse to my taking some new pictures of her. Later the phrase changed to ‘would be pleased’ and it was added that I should take some pictures specially for new stamps to be issued in the Channel Islands.

I suppose I’ve forgotten that in earlier days I would get ‘nerves’ before an important sitting, but certainly this time I felt quite anxious. The difficulties are great. Our points of view, our tastes are so different. The result is a compromise between two people and the fates play a large part. One does not know if things will conspire against me, or if the sun should shine.

There have been so many pictures of the queen in tiara, orders and crinoline that I felt I must try something different. I asked Martin if a deerstalker cloak would be suitable. No, he didn’t think so, but what about an admiral’s cloak? Nave-blue serge. That sounded great and when I saw the cape in his office, felt this would be an enormous asset. . . Martin telephoned to say the Queen had agreed to wear the cloak, was rather giggly about the whole thing, and said it didn’t matter what she wore underneath it as it wouldn’t show if she had nothing on. ‘Oh, the saucy thing!’ Eileen said when I relayed this piece of information to her. . .’

‘[Later in the same (long) entry about the photos:] . . . Maybe I was tired, but no question of masterpiece. How could the camera be so cruel? There was no imperfection it glossed over! I was appalled, really dunched. Blau [head of Camera Press which distributed Beaton’s photographs] comforted me, said he thought it a remarkable collection, the Queen shown in honesty as she is today, a woman of 42, no longer a child, not a film star, not made up for photographs, not particularly interested in her appearance. This was an interesting set.

The following day I was fresher. The rapturous cries of others helped me. The slight retouching helped too . . . Martin seemed enthusiastic, liked the cloak, and I left for America (I write on the plane against time)) without knowing if the cape will be approved or not. In fact, it is still in the hands of fate what results will come out of this latest milestone in my career. Or is it a nail in the coffin?’

This article is a revised version of one first published 10 years ago on 18 January 2010.

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