“London’s Honourable Scars” Showcases Cecil Beaton’s Wartime Photos of the Blitz

Photo: Cecil Beaton, St. Paul’s seen through a Victorian Shopfront, circa 1940. Gelatin silver print. SBMA, Gift of Mrs. Ala Story. © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s

Best known for his fashion and portrait photography as well as his Academy-Award-winning stage and costume design, Sir Cecil Beaton (1904–1980) exemplified the very best of the beau monde. His acerbic wit, on full view in The Unexpurgated Diaries, could be summed up in his belief, “Perhaps the world’s second-worst crime is boredom; the first is being a bore.”

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Born into a prosperous family, Beaton was introduced to photography by his nanny, who carried a Kodak 3A Camera. She began teaching him the basics of photography and developing film. Once he was proficient, he began to send the photos out to London society magazines under a pen name, “recommending’ the work of this fresh ingénue.

Cecil Beaton, Dr. Johnson Outside His Church, circa 1940. Gelatin silver print. SBMA, Gift of Mrs. Ala Story. © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s

In 1927 Vogue brought Beaton on as a staff photographer and he set up a studio to capture the Bright Young People, quickly defining the look of the times. The demand for his work grew, as did his fame, landing Beaton on the staff of both Vogue and Vanity Fair during the 1930s. By 1938, his cheeky ways got the better of him; he inserted anti-Semitic cartoons into the margins of his photographs of New York society in an issue of American Vogue. The issue was recalled and reprinted, and Beaton was fired—but he could not be stopped.

He returned to England where no less than the Queen recommended him to the Ministry of Information, where he became a leading war photographer, documenting the damage done to the nation under the German blitz. A selection of these photographs is currently on view in Cecil Beaton’s “London’s Honourable Scars”: Photographs of the Blitz at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, through January 8, 2017.

Cecil Beaton, St. Andrew by the wardrobe, circa 1940. Gelatin silver print. SBMA, Gift of Mrs. Ala Story. © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s

The exhibition features 15 photographs from the London’s Honourable Scars series that document the devastating of London, capturing an era that Winston Churchull described as Britain’s “finest hour.” It was here in the throes of World War II that Britain stood alone against the German onslaught that rained down like clockwork.

Between September 7, 1940 and May 21, 1941, more than 100 long tons of high explosives were dropped on 16 British cities. In total, London was attacked 71 times over a period of 267, with 57 of the bombings falling on consecutive nights. More than 40,000 civilians were killed and over one million homes were destroyed. The Germans were intent upon demoralizing the British into surrender—but they failed.

Part of the reason for this was that the Germans dropped bombs at the same time every night, allowing the British to organize and prepare themselves for the onslaught. Every day, some 150,000 people queued up to sleep in underground bunkers, where they remained unharmed, able to adapt themselves to the stress of living through war. With the threat of the unknown, they were able to adjust, going so far as to talked about the raids as if it were the weather, describing a day as “very blitzy.”

Cecil Beaton, Bloomsbury Square, circa 1940. Gelatin silver print. SBMA, Gift of Mrs. Ala Story. © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s

“Keep Calm and Carry On” was the slogan of the day, and the British were able to maintain their morale through one of the war’s most devastating offensives. Beaton’s photographs are a testament to this, offering an heroic ode to his hometown and the people who endured the worst.

Beaton deliberately avoided showing the horrors of war exacted on flesh, preparing to present the destruction of buildings as a metaphor for the impact of violence. In doing so, he preserved the sanctity of those who lost their lives and their loved ones, recognizing that such an invasion of personal space would not help anyone at all. It was understood people were injured and dying, but the larger message of Beaton’s work as a photographer was that the nation, though wounded, would not fall.

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.