Sir Cecil Walter Hardy Beaton, CBE was an English fashion, portrait and war photographer, diarist, painter, interior designer and an Academy Award-winning stage and costume designer for films and the theatre. He was named to the International Best Dressed List Hall of Fame in 1970.
Beaton was born on 14 January 1904 in Hampstead the son of Ernest Walter Hardy Beaton (1867–1936), a prosperous timber merchant, and his wife Etty Sissons. His grandfather, Walter Hardy Beaton (1841–1904), had founded the family business of Beaton Brothers Timber Merchants and Agents, and his father followed into the business. Ernest Beaton was also an amateur actor and had met his wife, Cecil’s mother Esther or Etty, when playing the lead in a play. She was the daughter of a Cumbrian blacksmith named Joseph Sissons and had come to London to visit her married sister. Through his maternal grandmother, Elizabeth Oldcorn, Cecil was related to the Blessed Father Edward Oldcorne who was involved in the Gunpowder Plot. Ernest and Etty Beaton had four children – in addition to Cecil there were two daughters Nancy (1909–99, who married Sir Hugh Smiley) and Barbara (1912–73, known as Baba, she married Alec Hambro), and another son Reginald (1905–33).
Cecil Beaton was educated at Heath Mount School (where he was bullied by Evelyn Waugh) and St Cyprian’s School, Eastbourne, where his artistic talent was quickly recognised. Both Cyril Connolly and Henry Longhurst report in their autobiographies being overwhelmed by the beauty of Beaton’s singing at the St Cyprian’s school concerts. When Beaton was growing up his nanny had a Kodak 3A Camera, a popular model which was renowned for being an ideal piece of equipment to learn on. Beaton’s nanny began teaching him the basics of photography and developing film. He would often get his sisters and mother to sit for him. When he was sufficiently proficient, he would send the photos off to London society magazines, often writing under a pen name and ‘recommending’ the work of Beaton.