A Very British Affair: Cecil Beaton and the Oliviers
Continuing with “Vivien in Fashion” Week, today we throw the spotlight on photographer and costume designer Cecil Beaton. Cecil is perhaps the most interesting of all of the Vogue photographers who photographed Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier because he also had somewhat of a personal relationship with them as well as a professional one.
Since I first became interested in vintage fashion and photography, I have been interested in Beaton’s photographs of Vivien Leigh in particular (and he did take my all time favorite portrait of Laurence Olivier in 1948). Cecil was the photographer on Caesar and Cleopatra, and the costume designer for Anna Karenina as well as for the play The School for Scandal which the Oliviers performed in 1948 and 49. In my opinion, he took the best photos of Vivien Leigh, and his abrupt falling out with the Oliviers in 1948 makes me rather sad. But it is an interesting story, so I thought it would be nice to hear about their personal and professional relationship from someone who knows quite a bit about it.
Most of you know Hugo Vickers for writing the definitive biography on Vivien Leigh. He is also the Literary Executor for the Cecil Beaton Estate and has published Beaton’s biography and diaries. He was very kind in writing out the tale of the Oliviers and Cecil Beaton especially for vivandlarry.com. Thanks, Hugo!
It was inevitable that the paths of Vivien Leigh and Cecil Beaton would cross sooner or later. It was almost a symbol of success that if you became famous in Britain – or indeed in the United States – Cecil Beaton would take your photograph. A photograph by Beaton was equivalent to going up a ladder rather than down a snake.
He first photographed Vivien Leigh for Vogue soon after her success in The Mask of Virtue in 1935. He caught up with her properly in Edinburgh in 1941. She was then playing in The Doctor’s Dilemma and he photographed her at her dressing table. He then took her out for supper and they returned to the hotel where they sat up talking so long that the night Porter was presently hoovering the carpets and dusting the armchairs around them. He asked her many questions and summed up her life perfectly – he found her madly in love with Olivier who adored her; she was convinced that he was a great person and she was aware that her former husband (Leigh Holman) also doted on her. He thought that she remained unspoiled, had many loyal friends and he concluded that her principal ambition was to improve as an actress on the stage. She was not interested in the adulation of her beauty and loved talking late into the night. In Cecil she found a good co-conspirator.
I remember when I found this account, I thought that he was absolutely spot-on in respect of all the important things in her life. He had managed to sum it all up in a few paragraphs, whereas it had taken me 137 pages of biography to reach the same point in the story! I came to admire his perception all the more.
It would be nice to conclude that the relationship with Vivien and Olivier continued as happily but unfortunately it did not.
Cecil dressed Vivien for the Alexander Korda film of Anna Karenina, one of her less successful film ventures, for, like Greta Garbo in the same role some years earlier, she was not maternal. As filming progressed at Shepperton Studios, he found Vivien becoming quite exacting. When she complained that he had made her gloves too small he replied: “No, it isn’t the gloves that are too small but your hands which are too big”.
Later there was a terrible row between Beaton and the Oliviers over the production of The School for Scandal which they chose to take Australia. When Cecil Beaton designed a production, it was always “Sets and costumes by Cecil Beaton” then “the play written by the author” and finally “starring the actors”. That was the order in his mind, and when you consider the style he gave to a number of plays and films, perhaps he got his priorities right. When the play was produced in New York in 1949, Cecil Beaton complained that Olivier bombarded him with requests the new costumes and alterations and forced him to discuss the thousand details of wigs and corsets.
Beaton would never tolerate criticism of his work. This always inflamed him. He chose to consider that the Oliviers were grudging in their generosity and that they had not been good friends behind his back. He heard that the Oliviers were furious because he attended a performance of Richard III, but did not go round to congratulate them afterward. As so often the root of the row was more complicated than that. It also hinged on other things.
Jealousy was a part of Cecil Beaton’s character and he was naturally jealous of Laurence Olivier and the ease with which he moved from one success to another. This was fuelled by his detecting defects in the Olivier’s character. When Olivier was appointed head of the National Theatre, Cecil Beaton wrote that of course Olivier was the most suitable person for the job. He added “Little matter if deep down he’s not a very nice person. What does matter is that perhaps he has little intellect and is likely to flounder if he should try to do something in the modern idiom or something experimental”.
After the row, Vivien could do no right and Cecil’s eyes. When he saw Antony and Cleopatra on the stage in New York in 1951, he wrote that he was most disappointed: “I cannot but think that she must have deteriorated for her voice was quite phoney. I was never once moved and could not understand what she was saying as Larry has taught her to put on a fake voice to disguise her own little birdlike pipe. It is not a success.”
Vivien Leigh was always described as a very good friend and she was certainly much more generous to Beaton than he was to her. In 1959 she went round to see him at Pelham Place, his London home, and presented him with a beautiful edition of Pierro de la Francesco paintings, as a peace offering. The present was well thought out and exactly the sort of thing that Cecil Beaton liked but unfortunately he did not have it in his heart to respond to her olive branch.
Nevertheless he left some beautiful photographic images of her, and designed some beautiful clothes for her. One day in an auction house, I spotted a full colour drawing of Vivien in one of her Anna Karenina costumes and felt that as I had written about both of them, I should give it a home. It was not inexpensive, but I have it still.
Aside from taking amazing photos of Larry and Vivien, Cecil Beaton also took amazing photos of many other people for Vogue, and there are quite a few retrospectives about his work. I’d recommend the following:
I would also recommend any of Hugo Vickers’ books about Beaton: