Cecil Beaton, Celebrating Celebrity – a new exhibition at Blenheim Palace

Our guest contributors are handpicked to provide positive, interesting, uplifting articles that appeal to ladies over fifty. So settle down with your beverage of choice and welcome this week’s guest contributor Sandra Smith…

In an era where the label, Celebrity, is readily and widely attributed, it is worth recalling those decades during the last century when fame and social standing were bywords not merely for being well-known, either through birth or achievement, but suggested an element of style, too. Our current use of the popular quadrisyllabic represents, of course, the evolution of language. And suitably explains the title of this exhibition, first shown at the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, and now housed in the historical setting of one of England’s magnificent palaces.

Cecil Beaton began his career as a society photographer in 1926. His debut exhibition resulted in a contract with Vogue, for which he worked for the following 30 years. The London born creative went on to capture the social scene of the 1930s and 1940s before becoming the official photographer to the royal family, his artistry also manifesting itself in interior, costume and stage design, as his Academy Awards – he won Oscars for Gigi and My Fair Lady – testify.

Cecil Beaton, Celebrating Celebrity is a celebration of a talented man who not only acquired access to many of the most familiar names of his time, but was blessed with the gift of producing memorable compositions. Some of the images in this exhibition are classically, yet deceptively, simple. Both Barbra Streisand, for example, and Twiggy are stylish and time defying portraits, instantly recognisable icons captured without fuss. This is testament to, despite being short on technical skills, Beaton making up for any lack of industry know-how by the knack of either recognising the precise moment to click a camera, or through an intuitive ability to stage manage scenes and subjects. On the other hand, images such as Aldous Huxley, and Salvador and Gala Dali, suggest a hint of surrealism or perhaps experimentation.

Beaton was commissioned to take the wedding photographs of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and the black and white image of the relaxed pair sitting gazing at each other is one of the tenderest in this exhibition, though Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother was believed to be his favourite sitter. Taking their place among elegant royal portraits (Beaton continued to photograph the royal family until 1979) are photographs of Hollywood stars including Audrey Hepburn and Marlon Brando, as well as stage idol Rudolf Nureyev and fashion designer Coco Chanel et al.

Knighted in 1972, Beaton’s personal artistic legacy shines throughout this retrospective. And, having been a familiar guest at Blenheim, the setting is appropriate. However, the exhibition would generate more impact had it been housed in a dedicated venue rather than framed images dotted throughout those rooms open to the public where some photographs jar against backdrops of oil paintings or tapestries, cannot be seen close up, or are separated from their accompanying captions.

If you want to experience the splendour of Blenheim Palace then you may well find this works for you. But given the expertise Cecil Beaton showed in staging images, a similar sensitivity in staging Cecil Beaton, Celebrating Celebrity would have more accurately reflected the photographer and his work.

Cecil Beaton, Celebrating Celebrity, 17 May – 1 August 2021 (tickets required), Blenheim Palace, Woodstock, Oxfordshire OX20 1UL. MORE INFO

Read more from Sandra Smith here