Cecil Beaton: Portraits

26 June 2009 to 31 August 2009

This exhibition is now closed

This major restrospective exhibition brings together captivating images from Cecil Beaton, one of the most celebrated photographers of the 20th century. Renowned for his images of elegance, glamour and style, Beaton's work has inspired many famous photographers including David Bailey and Mario Testino.

The exhibition reflects the astonishing talents of the photographer who was also a writer, artist, designer, actor, caricaturist, illustrator and diarist. There are four sections in the exhibition covering Beaton's career and capturing 50 years of fashion, art and celebrity:

  • The Early Years: London to Hollywood, 1920s and 1930s Photographs of Hollywood stars such as Marlene Dietrich and Fred Astaire and artists including John (Rex) Whistler, Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali.


  • The Years Between: The War and Post-War Arts, 1940s
    Featuring Greta Garbo, Vivian Leigh and Laurence Olivier as well as Princess Elizabeth and Sir Winston Churchill.


  • The Strenuous Years: Picturing the Arts, 1950s
    Portraits of Queen Elizabeth II, Francis Bacon, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Lucian Freud and Marilyn Monroe.


  • Partying and the Partying Years: Apotheosis and Retrospection, 1960s and 1970s
    Includes images of Audrey Hepburn, Prince Charles, Harold Pinter, Katherine Hepburn, Mick Jagger, Barbara Streisand
    and Elizabeth Taylor.

Queen Elizabeth & Prince Charles, 1950

Black and white photo of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles as a child

Queen Elizabeth & Prince Charles © V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Beaton took a series of photographs of mother and child at Clarence House, when Prince Charles was almost two. They were later released to the press.

Beaton described Prince Charles as 'an obedient sitter. He...open(ed) his blue eyes to stare long and wonderingly into the camera lens, the beginning of a lifetime in the glare of public duty.'

Francis Bacon, 1951

Black and white photo of Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon © Cecil Beaton Archive, Sothebys London / Collection National Portrait Gallery, London

Bacon was a friend of Beaton's with whom he said he had 'tremendous rapport'. Bacon painted his portrait in February 1960. Beaton was horrified with the unflattering result;

'The face was hardly recognisable as a face for it was disintegrating before your eyes, suffering from a severe case of elephantitis...'.

Bacon destroyed the portrait shortly afterwards, not wishing Beaton to have something of his that he did not like.

Photographed at Beaton's London home, 8 Pelham Place.

Jackie Kennedy Onassis, 1951

Black and white photo of Jackie Kennedy Onassis

Jackie Onassis © National Portrait Gallery, London

Beaton photographed Jackie Lee Bouvier as a debutante for a feature about the Bouvier sisters in American Vogue.

In the year of this photograph she started working for The Washington Times-Herald and while working for the newspaper, she was introduced to John F. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Congressman. She married Kennedy in 1953 and served as First Lady of the United States from 1961 until her husband's assassination in 1963.

 Marilyn Monroe, 1956

Black and white photo of Marilyn Monroe

Marilyn Monroe © Cecil Beaton Archive, Sothebys London / Collection National Portrait Gallery, London

Born Norma Jeane Mortenson, Monroe first came to prominence as a model in the 1940s before forging a successful career as an actress. During the 1950s, she starred in 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes' (1953), 'The Seven Year Itch' (1955) and 'Some Like It Hot' (1959).

This portrait was taken during a photographic session at the Ambassador Hotel in New York. Beaton recalled;

'She romps, she squeals with delight, she leaps onto the sofa. She puts a flower stem in her mouth, puffing on a daisy as though it were a cigarette. It is an artless, impromptu, high spirited, infectiously gay performance.'

Lucian Freud, 1956

Black and white photo of Lucien Freud

Lucien Freud © Cecil Beaton Archive, Sothebys London / Collection National Portrait Gallery, London

By the time this portrait was painted, the artist Freud’s Surrealist tendencies and the meticulous attention to detail of his early work in the 1940s had been superseded by a more expressive use of paint. Other photographs from this shoot show Lady Caroline Blackwood, to whom he was then married (1953-8), and who inspired some of his most important paintings.

Published in Face of the World with Beaton's caption;

'His black curly hair, intensely restless eyes, bright woolen scarf or checked trousers of decidedly zazou cut, have become a landmark in the artistic life of London.'

Photographed for Harper's Bazaar, Vogue's main rival, for which Beaton began work in 1956.

Audrey Hepburn, 1960

Black and white photo of Audrey Hepburn

Audrey Hepburn © Cecil Beaton Archive, Sothebys London / Collection National Portrait Gallery, London

Beaton photographed Hepburn in January of the first year of the 1960s. Hepburn, who had gained popularity in America with her Oscar winning performance in 'Roman Holiday' (1953), was described by Beaton then as a 'new type of star'

Hepburn's appearance as Holly Golightly in the film adaptation of Truman Capote's 'Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961) followed a year after this photograph was taken. In 1963 Beaton would spend ten months in Hollywood on the film production of 'My Fair Lady' (1964) photographing Audrey Hepburn in the many costumes that he had created for the film.

Exhibition organised by the National Portrait Gallery

National Portrait Gallery