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Independent on Sunday, TheFeb 1, 2004   by Robin Muir

Cecil Beaton did not consider his first success an auspicious start. He was thrilled when a portrait of the distinguished don-to- be, George "Dadie" Rylands, was published by Vogue in 1924 but also surprised, because, as he recalled years later: "It was a slightly out-of-focus snapshot of him as Webster's Duchess of Malfi standing in the sub-aqueous light outside the men's lavatory of the ADC Theatre at Cambridge." Nevertheless, it marked the beginning of Beaton's glittering career. From then, until shortly before his death in 1980, he was seen as one of the great creative figures of the 20th century.

Beaton, who was born in 1904, was tireless as a fashion illustrator, a witty caricaturist of social mores, a writer and stylist and commentator on taste; he won three Oscars for costume and design; he kept acutely (often devastatingly) forthright diaries; he was a theatre designer of world renown; he wrote plays and adaptations; and he was a self-taught garden designer and an enthusiastic horticulturalist. But his genius lay in fashion and portrait photography.

Everyone of consequence sat for Beaton - from Picasso to Edward VIII, Augustus John to Keith Richards, Winston Churchill to Rudolph Nureyev, Coco Chanel to David Hockney, Fred Astaire to Andy Warhol. He cajoled his friend, Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India and the former Supreme Allied Commander South East Asia, to lie with him on a divan so that he could photograph their reflection in a mirrored ceiling; and he persuaded the normally recalcitrant Greta Garbo to sit for an epic session.

This wide-ranging career, for which Beaton was knighted in 1972, lost momentum only when, two years later, a debilitating stroke left him unable to do much at all. His famous memory for names became impaired. In conversation with a friend, Sir Michael Duff, he apparently described the Queen Mother as, "You know, that friend of yours whose daughter does a very important job." In time, Beaton recovered a little and, in the year before his death, he had recovered sufficiently to learn to paint and write with his left hand and to photograph the couture collections again for French Vogue.

Sadly, the Duchess of Malfi picture which launched his meteoric career is lost. But the self-portrait with Mountbatten is about to go on show at Sotheby's London in an exhibition, Beaton at Large. That any of Beaton's vintage prints still exist (with their negatives in pristine condition) is largely thanks to the auction house and its then expert-in-charge of photographs, Philippe Garner. After his stroke, Beaton became anxious about financial security for his old age and, in 1976, entered into negotiations with Garner. In an unprecedented step for an auction house, Garner acquired Beaton's archive.

His portraits of the Royal Family were excluded; so too the five decades of prints held by Vogue in London, Paris and New York. Garner, who had almost singlehandedly invented the photographic auction, assiduously oversaw the archive's preservation and partial dispersal, so that Beaton's only tangible assets, and what he considered his life's work, would ensure him an annual income. "Even from my teenage years," says Garner, "Beaton had been this heroic figure in British creative and cultural life; someone whose talents embraced not only photography. And that enthusiasm was crucial when the opportunity to make the purchase arose. It was a treasure of considerable national - indeed international - importance."

The first of five auctions was held in 1977 and it was - as they all were - a resounding success. The last took place in 1980; by which time Beaton was dead. But many of his extraordinary documents - even then relics from a lost age - remained in the care of Sotheby's: portraits of the Sitwells; a youthful Stephen Tennant; the striking shipping heiress Nancy Cunard; the shimmering society beauty Paula Gellibrand, Marquesa de Casa Maury (who Vaselined her eyelids for extra shimmer); and the exquisite actress and writer Diana Cooper, among hundreds of other sitters.

In the 1920s, on the way up, Beaton's recall for a name was at its sharpest: razor-like if it might advance him. He left Cambridge without a degree and coped with salaried employment (in his father's timber business) for a mere eight days. ` He designed book jackets and costumes for charity matinees, learning the craft of photography at the studio of Paul Tanqueray, until Vogue took him on regularly in 1927.

So rapid was his ascent at Vogue that, had he not been so mercurial and capricious, he might have made a superb editor-in- chief, and it was rumoured that he was on the list of candidates in 1940. But an incident that had occurred two years earlier put paid to any real ambitions there. He treated the cause of his troubles airily but in truth it was shocking enough to have halted his curve at Vogue dead in its tracks and to haunt him for years afterwards. In the 1920s, however, all that was ahead of him...

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