Exhibitions Museums United Kingdom

Cecil Beaton’s wartime photos found in Imperial War Museum archives

The cache of 120 images depicting life in Britain during Second World War were transferred to museum in 1948 but remained unattributed until now

Cecil Beaton, Wren Officers framed by Sir Christopher Wren colonade at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich 1941 (Photo: © Imperial War Museum)

A cache of 120 photographs by Cecil Beaton that depict life in Britain during the Second World War has been discovered in London in the Imperial War Museum’s Photograph Archive. Although the photos entered the collection in 1948 when the Ministry of Information’s photography archive was transferred to the museum, they remained unattributed until now. Several of the images, including those of children bedding down in an air raid shelter and the legendary Royal Air Force fighter pilot Neville Duke posing in front of his airplane, are featured in the exhibition, “Cecil Beaton: Theatre of War”, which opened at the Imperial War Museum on 7 September.

“Every official wartime photograph had to go through the ministry’s censorship board and the ministry kept copies of all of the photos in what was to become known as its censorship library,” says Hilary Roberts, the head curator of the museum’s photography archive. The ministry had filed the photos by subject matter, not by photographer, so the images had remained unattributed to Beaton until Roberts came across them while conducting research for the exhibition. “Beaton’s later photographs were credited to him but those taken when he was first made an official war photographer in 1940 weren’t,” Roberts says. The style of the photographs and the fact that they were printed on the type of photographic paper favoured by Beaton convinced Roberts that they were by Beaton. “The photos of London during the Blitz were a particularly delightful find,” Roberts says.

Beaton, who died in 1980, had a distinguished career as a portrait and fashion photographer and stage and costume designer, but it was his wartime photos for which he had the highest regard. He took more than 7,000 photographs between 1940 and 1945.

The exhibition runs until 1 January 2013.

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4 Oct 12
14:46 CET


Hi Hilary, exhibition sou nds very interesting and I'm supposing a greatr deal of enjoyment in putting together. Your discovery of Beaton's unattributed photographs raises a question we have long worried over and that is the attribution of our official WW1 photographs taken in France, the E Series. I note the source of your Beaton photographs is the Ministry of Information, we know the censor had a similar role in WW1 so is there anything in the Ministry's papers that might help us?? My very best regards Ian

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