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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.

Vivien and Cecil in Paris for Anna Karenina costume fittings, 1947

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 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.


Vivien at her dressing table during The Doctor’s Dilemma

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.

Vivien among the lilacs–unpublished print for Vogue, 1946
Vogue 1948, in costume for Anna Karenina
Vogues “fresh face”, 1946
Vogue 1942. Vivien models a Molyneux star print dress and black coat
On the set. Cecil Beaton wearing the visor in the background
In costume for Anna Karenina, 1948
My favorite photo of Larry. Taken by Beaton at the British Embassy in Paris, 1948
Vogue 1936. Larry as Romeo for The Old Vic
The Oliviers, looking every bit en vogue, 1948
Costume fittings in Paris

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:

*Beaton Portraits by Terence Pepper
*Beaton in Vogue by Josephine Ross
*The Glass of Fashion by Cecil Beaton

I would also recommend any of Hugo Vickers’ books about Beaton:

*Cecil Beaton
*Beaton in the 60s
*The Unexpurgated Beaton

Kendra has been the weblady at since 2007. She lives in Yorkshire and is the author of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait, and co-author of Ava Gardner: A Life in Movies (Running Press). Follow her on Twitter @kendrajbean, Instagram at @vivandlarrygram, or at her official website.

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Comments (17)

  1. There is no doubt I am a huge fan of Cecil Beaton’s work, but wow! What an ego! When Vivien complained her gloves were too small, I was apalled he made such a nasty crack about her hands being so big.We all know Viv was sensitive about her hands, and owned a lot of gloves to try and hide the problem. It was a really low blow on Beaton’s part.
    His criticism of Vivien’s portrayal of Cleopatra was very petty, to say the least.
    Beaton’s cracks about Larry’s not being a very nice person and having little intellect and was likely to flounder if he did anything modern or experimental made me laugh! Larry was an absolute genius and I can’t even get that upset about it.
    Even when Vivien tried to make amends, Beaton still had to be a total ass.It’s amazing he could dish it out, but couldn’t take it! God, what a jerk!

  2. I agree with you, Sylvia. I find him interesting and I love his work, but he was very petty, it seems. Shame on him for not taking Vivien’s olive branch. I read that it was his comment about her hands that started her self-consciousness about them. I’m not sure if that’s true. I’m sure Cecil, Larry and Vivien all had their moments of being nasty to other people, though.

  3. Yes I’m sure they all had there moments of being nasty to other people, unfortunately it’s part of being human. We’re all guilty of this sort of thing.

  4. Too true!

    The reason why I think it’s a shame Cecil had a falling out with Larry and Vivien is because of the quality of photos he took of them–especially Vivien. I mourn what could have been! haha 🙂

  5. visited vivandlarry blog for the first time 🙂

    Is it me or in the picture with the lilacs Vivien looks a bit like Garbo?

    Anyhew, very interesting post! I’m not a huge fan of sir Beaton but I think his photographs of Vivien are some of his better works. His lighting for Marlene Dietrich is just not right for my taste. Regarding about his being petty, he indeed was. He said something evil about even Audrey Hepburn.

  6. Great insight into this particular relationship. I knew of the friendship + fallout between Beaton and the Oliviers but I never knew the details. It seems Beaton was indeed not a very nice person. Pity, because I love his work (I have one of the books you mentioned, ‘Beaton Portraits’, and I love it!)

    Are you planning on writing an article on Vivien and Angus McBean anytime? His book about her is my most treasured item in my small Oliviers collection 🙂

  7. I looove beaton portraits, that’s one of my best books as well.

    I would like to do an Angus McBean post–good idea! Unfortunately I don’t own that Vivien A Love Affair in Camera book 🙁 But I do have a couple original McBean photos (neither of larry or Viv, unfortunately)

  8. An–I think he had something to say about just about everyone. I can see the similarity of Viv and Garbo in that photo–I think it’s the eyebrows. 🙂

  9. Interesting you should mention Angus McBean,I think of all the people who photographed her he she should lay claim to being considered her personnal photgrapher.If you can try and obtain a copy the book Angus McBean “Face-maker” by Adrian Woodhouse,it’s full of interesting stories about the Oliviers.Indeed I have a feeling Mr Woodhouse may well be his literary editor?! Many years ago I purchased a wonderful poster from the NPG shop featuring the double profile shot of Vivien by A.B,which I sent to him to sign (which he did) to my fury though he was stolen from me along with a charming accompanying letter in which talked of Larry,who had just died.Hey ho,such is life.So yes a feature on Angus would be a good idea!!

    1. I’ve read the Angus McBean Vivien book but unfortunately don’t own a copy. I feel like all of these amazing people that I’m really interested now died before I got to the scene. It’s a bit depressing!

  10. Very cool post! Thank you!
    I first came across Beaton’s name from a rather unusual photo he took of Marlon Brando in the 40s. Now I understand why it was so.

  11. in ’59 there was a wonderful photo of Olivier as Coriolanus in ‘Newsweek’ by a Douglas McVay, I
    think. Anyone have it?

  12. Wow, how is it possible that I’m just now seeing this post? It’s fantastic! A couple of years ago I read Hugo’s wonderful Beaton biography along with all the diaries, and I have to say I was absolutely riveted from start to finish. I’m really hoping Hugo will publish more diaries in the future, as there are years in Beaton’s diary-writing life that aren’t yet accounted for (Beaton published some of these himself, but they’re difficult to find now, and I don’t think they’d make for the same reading experience without Hugo’s commentary).

    As for the rift with the Oliviers, Hugo’s account of it here and elsewhere is so interesting. I side with the Oliviers, of course (for what that’s worth!), and don’t deny that Beaton definitely had his flaws. Everything everyone has to say here was certainly true regarding his ego, his nasty temper, and his cruelty, but the big surprise in reading Hugo’s books about Beaton was that I became quite fond of him! I still resent his crack about Vivien’s hands, though! And his rebuff to Vivien’s attempt at reconciliation is very sad to me (although touching and typically courageous on her part).

    Wonderful post. Can’t understand how I didn’t discover it sooner!

  13. I was told by someone who helped edit Olivier’s memoirs (published posthumously) that Cecil Beaton did not get a mention and this was quite surprising given their work together. This omission was glaring.

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