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“Love, Cecil” Director discusses how College archives helped her to create new Cecil Beaton documentary

The director of Love, Cecil, a new documentary about the photographer, diarist and designer, Cecil Beaton, will be speaking at St John’s this week about how the College archives helped her to craft a portrait of one of the 20th century’s most colourful artistic figures.

Lisa Immordino Vreeland will be speaking at 5.30pm on 20 October in the Lightfoot Room in the Old Divinity School. The talk, entitled “My Archival Journey with Cecil Beaton”, is free to attend and students are particularly welcome. The film itself will premiere at the Cambridge Film Festival a day later, 21 October, and is being shown at the Arts Picturehouse. 

Cecil Beaton was born in 1904 and studied history, art and architecture at St John’s. He went on to become a central figure in the cultural history of the 20th century, restlessly channelling his talents into fashion, portrait and war photography, interior design, stage and costume design, writing and painting.

His prolific creative output spanned six decades. Beaton photographed Pablo Picasso, Winston Churchill, Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn and the Queen – to name but a few. He worked for publications including Vogue and Vanity Fair, and took some of the most evocative and influential photographs of the London blitz during the Second World War. Later, as the emphasis of his career shifted towards theatre and film, he won two Oscars, alongside other accolades, for his costume design for the films My Fair Lady and Gigi.

In 1986, six years after his death, Beaton’s literary executors presented 46 boxes of his personal papers to St John’s. They contain private correspondence, diaries, notebooks and typescripts – among them letters from Truman Capote, Audrey Hepburn, Rex Harrison, T S Eliot, Yves Saint Laurent, Laurence Olivier and Greta Garbo. Beaton had a series of both male and female lovers, and is widely presumed to have had a relationship with Garbo, whose photograph was found in his room after he died.

The various Beaton archives, including the papers held at St John’s, were central to Immordino Vreeland’s research as she tried to build a complete picture of this complex figure, his 70-year career, and his legacy, for the making of Love, Cecil. Writing in the introduction to an accompanying book, she reflects: “Undoubtedly, it was the archival journey through Beaton’s life that has incited my curiosity the most… I hope to show a true behind-the-scenes glimpse of his motivations, his desires, and some of the breathtaking discoveries that I made.”

Both the film and the book reveal Beaton’s astonishing productivity to have been the result of fierce drive and ambition, created and overshadowed by the inflexible Edwardian class system in which he was raised. Although he was born into a privileged family (he was educated at Harrow before going to Cambridge), Immordino Vreeland writes that on the subject of class, “Beaton felt he befittingly should be of a higher one”. When asked by a journalist what his ambitions had been as a young man, he replied: “To be able to demonstrate that I was not just an ordinary, anonymous person”.

The archival research that went into the film helped Immordino Vreeland to examine the more complicated and darker aspects of Beaton’s career as well as the colour, creativity and socialite lifestyle for which he is remembered. He suffered from constant insecurity and a sense of “imposter syndrome” even as he mixed, apparently with considerable confidence, among some of the best-known figures of his age. He was prone to ferocious tantrums and jealousies when even his close friends experienced success.

Perhaps more than anything, he was also haunted by a slur that he committed relatively early in his career, in 1938, when he inserted anti-Semitic text into an illustration of New York society – an act that led to his dismissal from Vogue. Beaton could never fully explain this action, and throughout his life apologised, repeatedly, for it. “I was baffled, it was done unconsciously,” he once tried to explain. “I am not anti-Jewish, and I am violently hostile to Hitler.”

His path to success appears, at times, to have been a very lonely and solitary experience; one that, in his own words, “he walked alone”. Ironically, given his insecurities and lack of fulfilment, however, Immordino Vreeland concludes that Beaton ultimately achieved what he set out to do: “It is clear that Beaton was no secondary figure,” she writes; “he was a real player. He inserted himself into history through his talent, determination and hard work.”

“My Archival Journey with Cecil Beaton”, a talk by Lisa Immordino Vreeland, will take place in the Old Divinity School at St John’s College on Friday, 20 October, at 5.30pm. All are welcome.