The Victoria and Albert Museum has put on a show of Sir Cecil Beaton’s royal portraits as a contribution to the diamond jubilee celebration of HM the Queen, and it has been met with predictable enthusiasm. Lots of crowns! Lots of gowns!
It’s actually a disappointment. Although he was almost crippled by snobbery, Beaton was capable of technical skill and imagination. He was a charming (if slight) draughtsman, a fine designer (notably of stage sets) and his writing is shrewd as well as waspish, and often gracefully put together, too. He was a sufficiently versatile photographer. Fashion, of course, he took to as the natural milieu of the visually oriented queen, but his best portraits of artists drip with a kind of jealous scrutiny and his war photographs were by no means negligible. One can see how the jubilee demanded a certain kind of treatment, but this is a fawning exhibition which does no favours at all to a photographer who might be more interesting than the one-dimensional view of him presented here.
Beaton was born in 1904, in the same year as Bill Brandt, and it is not absurd to compare them. Peter Conrad did just that (The Observer, Sunday 25th January 2004) at the time of their mutual centenary, when two shows allowed him to think of them side by side. Conrad picked up on Beaton’s ‘lofty responsibility’. His job, as he put it, was ‘to stage an apotheosis’. With its ‘silvery magic’, the camera bestowed ‘a glorious halo’ on the people it portrayed. Never mind that some of that halo, when its address was Buckingham Palace, conveniently reflected on the photographer. It is too easy to think of Brandt as a dark European intellectual to Beaton’s childish British vampery – too easy but not inaccurate.
Brandt was born to considerable privilege, secretive and shy, interested in the poor and the dispossessed (a socialist in his photographs, even if his politics in life were less plain than that), not much appreciated in his lifetime. Beaton came from a modest background of which he was embarrassed, was a moth, attracted to Hollywood and country house parties and all that glistered – including, it goes without saying, the royal family. He was certainly a Tory in his photographs although he, too, was more complicated than that. He was absolutely obsessed with being appreciated. Beaton’s natural tone was absurd: think Kenneth Williams from the Carry On films. In a little snippet of a documentary David Bailey made on him which is screened in the V&A show, he is asked what he says to people while photographing them: “I coo like a bloody dove,” he says, camp as a row of tents.
This exhibition is designed to make a serious point, that Beaton’s pictures were one element in the campaign to modernize and stabilize the monarchy in the Windsor mould: a family business, hard at work in the service of the nation, certainly not swanning around ankle-deep in privilege. Fair enough. The present Queen has overseen a steadying of the monarchy at a time when it is much easier to make a name twitchily demanding change of any kind than working for stability in the long term. Part of that steadying was to supply a steady image. Beaton contributed to that, and was happy to do so. “ Today”, he wrote in 1953, “ members of the Royal Family realise that, the demands from the public and the Press becoming ever more voracious, being photographed is one of the serious obligations to which they must submit at increasingly frequent intervals.” It is on record that Beaton was not pleased when Anthony Armstrong-Jones became what Beaton felt he had the right to be, the senior photographer-courtier, and was ennobled in the process.
Every regime puts out official pictures, and we in Britain are luckier than some in that we don’t feel obliged to have them over every official desk in the land. Pumping out a number of reassuring pictures of Windsors at work and if necessary at home has hardly been a shocking abuse of power, and we could easily have left it at that. The show reveals a large number of prosperous people leaning on heavy furniture in interiors with very high ceilings. It is feeble to try to illustrate a story of the monarchy being modernised with such very conventional photography. But still… No surprise, no great insight, no problem.
Too much is made of Beaton’s inventiveness. He once put the Queen in an Admiral’s cloak, for statuesque simplicity. It looks rather coarsely borrowed from Rodin’s Balzac, as though he’d found it in a book the day before the shoot. He made some ‘contemporary’ and ‘relaxed’ portraits from time to time, notably of the royal children. There are some small signs of a photographer tying to do his best, including a charming seized moment of Princess Anne walking on ermine during a pause in the Coronation sittings, and one or two attempts to strip out background. But this is ‘contemporary’ in the same way that any routine wedding photography business can offer you Contemporary as opposed to Traditional, just another set of rules to apply for a predictable outcome.
Many of the best pictures are a small selection of portraits of Beaton by others – patently added to flesh out a show in sore need of a lift. Curtis Moffat, Paul Tanqueray, Erich Salomon, Irving Penn and a hilariously stagey rendition by David Bailey: this is quite a nice show within a show. There are also some interesting mounted series of pictures approved by the Palace. It is thin gruel, though, for a major exhibition at the V&A, far too thin. The V&A holds some 18,000 royal pictures by Beaton. There are about a hundred in the exhibition. If these really are the strongest we could have seen, then the holdings are a disaster.
There floats in the background a question. Beaton’s archive is somewhat messy, and there is lack of clarity about who owns exactly what copyright. Beaton worked a great deal for Vogue, and many of his pictures have a Condé Nast copyright. Condé Nast pushes out a steady stream of books on Beaton to exploit that fact. Sotheby’s also commercializes a holding of Beaton material, not very effectively, sometimes in co-production with Condé Nast and sometimes independently. But the royal archive was a specific gift to the V&A, and the V&A benefits materially from the reproduction of every royal Beaton, although not of Beaton’s images on other subjects. Is it possible that one of the motives for this really quite poor exhibition was simply that the increased circulation of royal Beaton imagery could make a windfall for a museum which (like every other) struggles to finance its operations?