Cecil Beaton’s World War

In artistic terms they were at polar opposites of the photographic spectrum.

The wanton destruction and grim resilience of war is not a subject you would associate with high fashion glamor shots of the rich and beautiful.

But when flamboyant photographer Cecil Beaton was enlisted during the Second World War, his striking collection showed the six-year conflict in a new, more graceful, picturesque light.

The photographer, whose most notable subjects included Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn, was commissioned for an altogether grittier photographic project that could be used as propaganda

Moving him away from his usual fare of royalty and fashion models, the Ministry of Information asked Beaton to document Britain’s war effort.

The renowned photographer pictured young men and women in a typically glamorous light, in spite of the ravages, destruction and chaos engulfing Britain in 1940.

His eye-catching portfolio stays away from corpses, blood and the unimaginable horror of the front line, featuring instead photogenic soldiers presenting a united front for the Allied Forces.

Even so, Beaton does tug on the heartstrings in his collection: one of the most memorable images shows wounded three-year-old Eileen Dunne at Great Ormond Street Hospital, in an evocative picture which would later grace the cover of Life magazine in September 1940.

The picture was clearly effective – as it was taken with the aim of generating sympathy for the British and helping sway America into intervening in the war.

She recognized them as being similar in style to the work of Beaton, and confirmed they were his work by matching them to his diary records.

She said: ‘The Ministry was in disarray in those days and the records weren’t kept well.

‘It was not practice to record the name of the photographer. But we always knew these images existed somewhere.’

After ceasing wartime operations, the Ministry of Information deposited Beaton’s war photos with the Imperial War Museum, London.

The photographer was briefly reunited with his vast body of work 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.

‘It was fascinating to see the scenes in old Imperial Simla, the rickshaws drawn by uniformed servants, the grandeur of the houses, the palaces, the bar scenes, the men on leave swigging beer, I had not realised that I had taken so many documentary pictures, some of purely technical interest.

‘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.’

Relaxed: A soldier orders a cup of tea in the Forces Canteen at Victoria Station in 1942. The soldier pictured was the butler of a close friend of photographer Cecil Beaton

As well as glamorous portraits of British soldiers, Beaton’s portfolio also catalogues famous landmarks, such as a war-ravaged Bloomsbury Square in London

War effort: A female welder works on the deck of a new ship in Tyneside in 1943

A sailor on board HMS Alcantara uses a portable sewing machine to repair a signal flag on a voyage to Sierra Leone

A British sailor on shore leave in Harrogate looks natural in front of the camera in 1941

War heroes: Squadron Leader M L Robinson of No 609 Squadron RAF sits on the wing of his Hawker Hurricane at RAF Biggin Hill in 1941 for a relaxed portrait picture

Three men of the Long Range Desert Group enjoy a moment’s relaxation with cigarettes after returning to headquarters in, Siwa, Libya, in 1942

Battle of Britain pilot Neville Duke, who later broke the World Air Speed record, pictured with his Spitfire at RAF Biggin Hill in 1941

A woman made homeless by the Blitz receives a hot meal at a welfare centre in Bermondsey, London, in 1940

Attribution: Chris Parsons

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About thecommonconstitutionalist

Brent is not a scholar. He’s not an author or speaker (yet). He hasn’t published a book nor does he write articles for magazines (yet). He has no advanced literary degree or pedigree (never will). He is just an American who writes and shares what interests him. He cares about the salvation of this country and a return to its Constitutional roots. He believes in God, country and family.
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4 Responses to Cecil Beaton’s World War

  1. Bruce says:

    Reblogged this on Stuff That Interests Me and commented:
    Some great pictures, mostly of WW2 Britain taken by a famous photographer who specialized in taking pictures of regular folks during the war.

  2. Bruce says:

    Great picture and interesting story. Thanks!

  3. Pingback: My Homepage

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