On Photography: Cecil Beaton by Hilary Roberts

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Cecil Beaton (1904-1980) is one of Britain’s most celebrated photographers and designers.  His glamorous fashion photography and society portraits projected him to fame but his extraordinary work as a wartime photographer is less well-known.

Beaton photographed the Second World War on behalf of the British Ministry of Information. Equipped with a single Rolleiflex camera, he travelled throughout Britain, the Middle East, Africa, India, Burma and China, capturing a world on the brink of lasting change.  His photographs were published in books, magazines and newspapers around the world.

Cecil Beaton (in civilian suit) and his Rolleiflex reflected in a mirror of the Jain temple, Calcutta, India. Photo by Cecil Beaton / IWM.
India 1944: A Gurkha soldier transporting a wounded man on his back through the jungle. Photo by Cecil Beaton / IWM.
The Western Desert 1942: Abandoned Italian respirators lying in the sand. Photo by Cecil Beaton / IWM.

In later years, Beaton attributed his war photographs as his single most important body of photographic work. This collection, comprising some 7,000 photographs, is now preserved by the Imperial War Museum’s Photograph Archive.  The collection has featured in numerous exhibitions and publications, most notably IWM’s own exhibition and book Cecil Beaton: Theatre of War.

2020 marks the fortieth anniversary of Beaton’s death.  Unfortunately, events to mark the anniversary have been disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic.  However, IWM’s project to digitise Beaton’s war photographs and publish them online continues. 

  • Hilary Roberts, Senior Curator of Photographs at IWM, has published an introduction to the collection here.
  • Copies of the book Cecil Beaton:  Theatre of War (pub.  Jonathan Cape & IWM, London 2012) are available from Amazon here.
  • Love Cecil, an award-winning documentary film by Lisa Immordino Vreeland, 2018) is also available on DVD from Amazon and Netflix.  See trailer here.