It is not suprising that Cecil Beaton responded so enthusiastically to the Bright Young Things of the Swinging Sixties, for it was the decade when class and education barriers tumbled, and any adolescent who had wit, thrust, figure or face could turn a tiny talent into a fortune. He himself, as a Bright Young Thing of the Roaring Twenties, had not had it quite so easy, for behind his schooldays, suffering the bullying Bloods at Harrow, lay the embarrassing spectre of his self-made father, a speculator in the timber trade. Cecil felt compelled to invent a tree tracing his family back to the only distinguished Beaton he could find (a Ladyin-Waiting to Mary Queen of Scots), and at 22 he confided to his diary the unwholesome ambition to dine at the Eiffel Tower restaurant because 'the people who go there are smart, arty, and the set I must get in with'.
He got in, on and up pretty quickly. Beneath the often effete exterior, the occasional transvestism and the sexual ambivalence, was a tough, tenacious, self-seeking and self-promoting climber, and the camera was the instrument of his ascent. The English seem always to have had a vain streak, prepared to sit like puddings for the face-painter, and Beaton was willing and eager to exploit it, pointing his Kodak at any candidate for the pages of Tatler and Vogue. Through his shutter the Aristocracy became the Photocracy, and as he snap-snapped away, his ambition crystallsed into the need to become the successor to Van Dyck and Reynolds and Gainsborough as the master of the icon of Royalty.
And he achieved it soon enough. He posed the Queen Mum as a Venetian Baroque confection by Tiepolo, as Mistress of the Faeries, and in the classical Roman image of Charity. He put the newlywed Wallis Simpson and her Duke in a window of the Chateau de Cande, unhappily suggesting imprisonment in a tower (and making every man's mistake of top-lighting the tip of Edward's nose). Marina of Kent he posed in the peasant costume of a Greek shepherdess - perhaps with irony, for she once asked him how on earth one got to Ascot if not in a carriage down the Royal Mile. Perhaps no man did more to consolidate the position of the Royal Family after the Abdication (with the exception of George and Elizabeth themselves), and to turn them into a rallying-point for loyalty after the outbreak of war.
His royal portraits now seem imbued with nostalgic romanticism, the work of a courtier on bended knee. In the safer purlieus of Bohemia, the upper crust, and even the lower slopes of Mount Royal, he could be mischievous and waspish. Lady Diana Cooper poses as a painted plaster saint, and Edith Sitwell plays the harp as a superannuated angel in an ancient allegory. Mrs Patrick Campbell's noble profile is thrown away in favour of her button-eyed peke in pudgy full face. The poetaster Auden,languid with cigarette, mightbe advertising Craven A. Rough, tough Picasso is portrayed as aburly businessman, and Rex Whistler, naked on the rocks, as fallenIcarus. He bedded Lord Mountbatten in the mirrored room of a Delhi brothel, the pair of them reflected like the Hollywood floozies of Busby Berkeley, Beaton himself far the more prominent of the pair.
This is perhaps the key to the man - Narcissus. He used mirrors to steal his sitters' thunder - there they sat, thinking themselves the object of his interest, when all the time it was on his own image that he lavished attention. His was indeed a career devoted to self-promotion (even his oldest and closest friend recognised the 'self-created genius'), treading a careful line between comment and adulation so that he would never be denied his chosen world. His photographs give no insight into their subjects, and they rarely reveal what Beaton thought of them; they demonstrate only that he was prepared to manipulate for effect whoever and whatever was at hand. He borrows brilliantly the ideas of painters, and with the change of medium the references are often unrecognised. He confuses themes and their treatment, so that wild Arab tribesmen in the real desert are tamed as Valentino's extras, and the Sahara wastes that witnessed Montgomery's war are no more sinister than pretty sets for The Desert Song. You will search in vain for truth; whoever said that the camera cannot lie, did not know Cecil.
Suffering the chronic infection of good taste, the stagey images are repetitive, and the clever contrivances soon bore. The only surprise is the total absence of good taste from the presentation of the show - and the old arbiter must be rolling in his grave. Never have I seen such disgusting gilt frames, such a litter of gigantic polka dots, such a plethora of plastic ivy - and whose loathsome idea was it to surround the photographs with wide mounts of flowered chintz? If the intention was to make the visitor experience the combined effect of a bit-part in My Fair Lady and This was his Life, then it fails, for the obelisks and knick-knacks scattered among the acres of ghastly white greens and milky terracottas are bleak, deflated camp.
Nothing could or should diminish Beaton's reputation as a stage designer, even if the frivolities of Gigi and My Fair Lady were his only real successes, rather than Turandot and Traviata - but he was no artist, and his paintings and drawings are frankly feeble. Nothing can take from him his stature as a shrewd and honest diarist. But the organisers of this exhibition have done enough to knock him off his perch as a photographer - if ever there was an example of overexposure, this is it.
.Evening Standard 1986