If you know something of Cecil Beaton’s politics you could be forgiven for thinking that this exhibition may be one to miss. Beaton, like so many of the English aristocracy that he longed to be part of, was an anti-Semite a fawning monarchist and a snob of the worst sort.
However, if you can afford the eight quid to get in, missing this exhibition would be an error for a number of reasons.
Firstly Cecil Beaton was quite simply a very good photographer who had a fantastic eye for a picture. His style and skill at composition mark him down as one of the earliest English photographers who saw the emerging media of photography as an art form. The work of the Surrealists informed and influenced much of his practice.
The bulk of this exhibition is drawn from the 7,000 photographs that Beaton produced for the Ministry of Information (MoI) during the Second World War. Despite Beaton’s illusions, what he was producing was definitely propaganda. What is important and interesting about these photographs is the narrative the MoI tried to render through them.
Here was not a fiendish bully of a country trying to seize or protect the vested interest of empire; here was plucky little Britain standing up against aggression and defending itself and its people, be they in London, Palestine, Cairo or Burma.
While Beaton’s iconic work of the period (including possibly his most famous image of Eileen Dunne, aged three, recovering in hospital after being injured during an air raid) hints at the venerable non-combatant and the terror of a city being bombed, we see very little of the real horror of war. There are no charred or bloated corpses, no severed limbs; Beaton was, so to speak, “on message”. He produced theatrical images of war.
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