England through the Beaton lens; Beaton, edited and with text by James Danziger. New York: Viking. $30.
The English sensibility, especially the one immanent in these pages, operates on a sly paradox. Out of a narrow social spectrum, a world no wider than Jane Austen's parsonages or dicken's poorhouses, the English artist fashions a portrait that is fully and forever England.
Such is the case of Sir Cecil Beaton. The England of his photographs, portraits of the highbred and the highbrow, meets our most vivid if naive expectations of that nation. Its noblesse oblige instinct unerringly selects the famed and fabled: movie stars, social legends, fashion tycoons.
The great contribution of this present volume is that it offers a far wider view of England and of Sir Cecil himself than ever seen before. It is the England of glittering dalliance, of dandies and debutantes, but it is also the England of war, dislocation, of rebuilding.
James Danziger, who collaborated with Sir Cecil on this book, has selected a diverse array of photographs from a lifetime's work. From his first photo at age 11 to his final one in Paris in 1979, Sir Cecil's work is seen in all its interest. Foremost are his photos of travel, fashion, war, and, of course, the studies of the royal family.
"Beaton" is a visual Who's Who. And ultimately, it's the parade of personalities that fascinates us. Who can ever forget the photo of edith Sitwell seated in bed, her face a Fra Angelico annunciation? Or that of Garbo in all her hermetic beauty? Or even the visual pun of a double-imaged Gertrude Stein?
As the book progresses, the portraits and the photographer's concern deepen. "By 1957," Danziger writes, "the typical Beaton subject was no longer a smart young thing seen in all his or her finery, but a study of changes wrought by experience." Even Sir Cecil's fashion studies took on a surreal edge. The cluttered theatrics of early work gave way to the confidence of simplicity and humanity.
If Sir Cecil abandoned the cold icons of beauty found in the world of high fashion and society, he never stopped finding it in the outside world. His eye could never resist beauty in even the most unlikely of contexts: the abstract play of a shattered roof; the lyricism of a sandstorm. Even London ruins have the cloudy beauty of a 10th-century scene.
"Beaton" is a meticulously ordered and sensitivity conceived work, a project of lasting beauty and record.