Cecil Beaton (1904–1980) was a fashionable and leading photographer of the 20th century. In a career that spanned five decades, he shot iconic photographs of celebrities and high society that capture the high glamour, beauty and elegance of the age.

The Book of Beauty, shown here, is Beaton’s first published book of photographs. It is a showcase for his early studio work, much of which features theatrical, glittering backdrops made from materials such as balloons (see the portrait of Tallulah Bankhead) and sequin curtains (see the portrait of the Marquise de Casa Maury). As well as its heavily stylised portraits of debutantes and film stars (such as Anna May Wong), the collection includes photographs of modernist literary figures Edith Sitwell and Nancy Cunard.

Cecil Beaton and Wise Children

References to Cecil Beaton are woven into Wise Children (1991), Angela Carter’s London novel about twins, doubling, popular culture and high art. Carter had written about Cecil Beaton in a notebook used to sketch out initial ideas for the novel.

In their pre-war career the Chance twins perform on sets designed by Beaton. In Grandma’s bedroom, hidden in the dressing-table drawer, sits a Beaton portrait of the twins, shot for Vogue magazine, an image that Nora describes in her arch tone:

He’d done us up as painted dolls, rouged spots on our cheeks and terrible artificial grins, sitting on the floor in frills with our legs at angles, as if they were made of wood. Rich men’s playthings. Very subtle. His Nanny used to hold the flash, you know.

Straddling the privileged classes and Hollywood celebrity, Beaton is an obvious choice for a novel which is underpinned by contrasts between high and low culture. While the Chance twins represent Beaton’s work with actresses and ‘show business’, Nora imagines that their half-sisters Saskia and Imogen, ‘So rich. So well-connected. So legitimate’, are from a world where they are likely to be photographed by Beaton for the high society magazine, The Sketch.

Click here to hear a short clip of Cecil Beaton speaking about fashion.