Cecil Beaton: Theatre of War, Imperial War Museum, London

The great fashion photographer was also a masterly war artist, as this revelatory exhibition demonstrates

Cecil Beaton’s ‘Men of the Long Range Desert Group after returning to headquarters at the end of a desert patrol, Siwa, Libya, 1942’ © FT

“Yesterday I went to the Imperial War Museum, not my favourite place, to see the collection of photographs that I had taken during the war for the Ministry of Information … It was an extraordinary experience to relive those war years; so much of it had been forgotten, and most of the people are now dead. It was fascinating to see the scenes in old Imperial Simla, the rickshaws drawn by uniformed servants, the grandeur of the houses, the palaces, the bar scenes, the men on leave swigging beer … I came away pleased that I had done such big jobs, and marvelled that I had done it with only one Rolleiflex. How it wasn’t broken, I do not know. Yet it had worked and some of them are, apart from their historic interest, extremely beautiful.”

This is Cecil Beaton in his diary, in 1974. It is little known that the great fashion photographer was a war artist; from thousands of his images in its archives, the Imperial War Museum exhibits highlights documenting both the landscape of war – from the destruction of Tyneside shipyards and of Sir Christopher Wren’s St Mary-le-Bow Church on London’s Cheapside to soldiers on desert patrol in Libya and the wreckage of an Italian aircraft in Egypt – and the passing of the empire.

Beaton was in his element photographing the final days of the Raj, bringing his inherent sense of theatre not only to the palatial drawing rooms of the governor of Bombay or the viceroy of India but also to portraits of a Simla tailor on the steps of his shop, or a rag-and-bone merchant outside a mosque.

Beaton ended the war in China, recording nationalist resistance to Japan and producing exquisitely composed panoramas of marching Chinese cadets, of Yangtze River boatmen and of Szechuan landscapes. Framing, layering, sense of scale and lighting are all carefully orchestrated in these elegant works, so different from the imperfect reality of candid reportage that had become the dominant wartime aesthetic. A revelatory show.

From Thursday to January 1, www.iwm.org.uk

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