Cecil Beaton’s striking portrait of Sir Benjamin Britten captures the lauded British composer in a contemplative mood. Looking to his left beyond the camera frame, he is shown resting on an unusual object that currently remains unidentified. It is thought that this object may have been a metal sculpture, possibly from Britten’s own art collection at The Red House, his home in Aldeburgh, Suffolk that he shared with his partner, the tenor singer Sir Peter Pears, for nearly 30 years. The lower section of the object in the background partly resembles the hook of a large fishing anchor – a plausible nautical reference perhaps to the coastal Suffolk landscape.
Although this photograph is undated, judging from Britten’s appearance, it is likely that it was taken some time in the late 1960s when he was in his late fifties. This assertion is supported by the fact that Britten sent Beaton a postcard during this period, in which he mentions signing a photograph of himself, commenting:
... that he hopes it is not too serious for ‘Raffles’. Beaton relaxed him ‘very cleverly’. Wonders if Beaton was pleased with some of the other pictures.
(Papers of Sir Cecil Beaton, A1/93, 1960–1970, St John’s Library, Cambridge)
In 1969 The New York Times reported the opening of Raffles, an exclusive private members’ club that opened in the basement of the Sherry-Netherlands Hotel in late October that year. The luxurious interior of the club designed by Beaton was described by the photographer himself as ‘...a tongue-in-cheek version of a traditional 18th century club.’
Britten first sat for Beaton during the Second World War, when Beaton worked as an Official War Photographer. Britten was one of several leading British cultural figures of the time that Beaton photographed – other figures included the poet, Cecil Day-Lewis, the painter, Walter Sickert and the painter and art dealer, Helen Lessore.
Sir Cecil Beaton is remembered chiefly for his iconic photographic portraits of leading celebrities and for his beautiful stage and costume designs, notably for Audrey Hepburn in the 1964 film, 'My Fair Lady'. While he was a staff photographer for Vanity Fair and Vogue magazines in the 1920s, Beaton also developed a repertoire of drawings of fashion designs and famous personalities. Despite the quirky charm of his caricatures, at the age of 50, dissatisfied with his drawing technique, he returned to study at the Slade School of Art in London. In 1939, he won his first commission to photograph the British royal family, a successful professional relationship that continued for several decades – he was official photographer for Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation in 1953.
From the 1950s to the mid 1970s, Beaton’s career as a photographer of the British establishment and demi-monde was secure. In 1974 he suffered a debilitating stroke that limited his dexterity with a camera, however he taught himself to sketch with his left hand. In 2004 a major exhibition celebrating Beaton’s photographs was held at the National Portrait Gallery in London, accompanied by a smaller display of some of his most famous drawings.
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