Beaton remembered his time in China as particularly dangerous, writing in Photobiography that on one occasion he was caught in the middle of crossfire. During this period Beaton took some of his most powerful photographs and these established him as a versatile photographer, whose practice expanded beyond the realm of fashion. His images of popular figures also helped to rekindle his relationship with Vogue and by the 1940s Beaton's photographs, once again, appeared in both British and American Vogue.
Towards the end of the war, Vogue commissioned Beaton to photograph a number of celebrities including Lily Elsie, Lady Diana Cooper and Greta Garbo. Beaton had always admired Garbo, having first met her a decade earlier, but it wasn't until the mid-1940s that their relationship became romantic. Beaton had always wanted to photograph Garbo, and in 1946 he was given this chance. After the photoshoot in the Plaza Hotel in New York, Garbo requested that only one of the photographs was published. Beaton, however, submitted enough photos to cover a double spread, which caused a significant rift in their relationship. Beaton had dated many men and women over the years, but it was Garbo who had a particular impact on him, and he always remained fond of her, keeping in contact with her for the rest of his life.
Cecil Beaton was a renaissance man who was equal parts rebel and aristocrat, an artist who lived between classical charm and new world rebellion, a provocateur, an Expressionist, and an aesthete who incorporated many mediums to create a style all his own. Sir Cecil Walter Hardy Beaton was born in Hampstead, London in 1904. At an early age, he showed a great interest in photography and the arts. It was at St. Cyprian’s School in Eastbourne, England that Cecil’s artistic talents were recognized. It was the patient and nurturing heart of his nanny who taught Cecil to use a Kodak 3A Camera. When he was confident enough in his work, Beaton sent his photographs to London society magazines to try and get them published. Although Cecil really had no interest in academia, he went to St John’s College in Cambridge to study history, art and architecture. Through his contacts at the university, Cecil was able to get his portrait “Duchess of Malfi” published in Vogue Magazine. Eventually, Cecil left London and moved to New York where he slowly built up quite a reputation. By the time he left, he had a contract with Conde Nast Publications to take photographs exclusively for them for several years. His career was saved by the outbreak of war in 1939, when he was offered a post with the Ministry of Information working as a photojournalist. In this role he photographed a huge range of people from soldiers and workers to senior political figures and the Queen. He also travelled to locations including the Middle East and China.
In 1963 Beaton met Kin (Kinmoit Hoitsma), a former Olympic fencer and a man thirty years his junior with whom he became romantically involved. Following on from his success with the stage show, Beaton was given the opportunity to design the costumes for the film production of My Fair Lady (1964). This was one of his best-known projects and he won an Oscar for the designs. While working on set, Beaton met Audrey Hepburn who he particularly admired, claiming in his diaries that she was "remarkably disciplined: her memory never at fault, she appears on the set word perfect, and she can give exactly the same performance over and over again".
In the summer of 1965 Kin ended their relationship, devastating Beaton. Although Beaton had numerous relationships with men, homosexuality was only fully legalized in 1967, and Beaton often found himself experiencing a sense of shame for his feelings. Discussing the matter in his diary in 1966, he wrote: "Of recent years the tolerance towards the subject has made a nonsense of many of the prejudices from which I myself suffered acutely as a young man. Even now I can only vaguely realize that it was only comparatively late in life that I would go into a room full of people without a feeling of guilt. To go into a room full of men, or to a lavatory in the Savoy, needed quite an effort. With success in my work this situation became easier."
Beaton left behind a legacy that influenced fashion photographers, portrait photographers and photojournalists alike. It was courtesy of Beaton that the glamorous image of the Hollywood starlet was established, a style dubbed "The Beaton woman" by Irving Penn. Beaton's images were not just about beauty, however, through his creativity and keen eye, Beaton established a powerful image of his sitters, giving a sense of their character through his photographs and this playful aesthetic replaced the more staid traditions of earlier portraitists. He also incorporated a unique theatricality into his fashion work and, along with photographers such as Horst P. Horst, revolutionized the medium, adding dramatic backdrops and sets and wider artistic references into his images whilst still portraying the elegance of the clothing.