In life, Cecil Beaton could be a charmer. As a photographer, he was also quite the flatterer. Wearing a wide-brimmed hat, silk ruffles and pearls, one young subject in this exhibition pouts knowingly at the lens, sure that the result will be marvellous. She ought to: it's a self-portrait. 'Not only do I take photographs but I am an entertainer as well,' Beaton wrote during his drag years at Cambridge Footlights.
The show sets up perfectly its premise that Beaton was not your go-to guy for gutsy war reportage. We flounce through effervescent images of film stars – Greta Garbo, Johnny Weissmuller – and society beauties – Sheila Chisholm posing gamely with her head in a bell jar – that paint the 1920s as one long, rather surreal party. A cautionary letter from Beaton's pal, the American screenwriter Anita Loos, 'full of good advice and other moral drool', warns him off frivolous behaviour. But Beaton's downfall came under different circumstances when, in 1938, anti-Semitic comments he had written in the margins of a cartoon made it to press. American Vogue sacked him; international scandal ensued.
Would Beaton have been less ready to accept the Ministry of Information's commission in 1940 had his career not been in ruins? The show never says so. Instead it launches into a rapid-fire display of some of the 7,000-strong archive of Beaton's war images held by the Imperial War Museum. It leaves you in no doubt of the photographer's newfound purpose and graft.
Redemption, of sorts, came relatively quickly courtesy of Eileen Dunne. Beaton's image of the three-year-old casualty of the Blitz, her head bandaged, clutching a teddy bear, was circulated round the globe and credited with raising sympathy for Britain in its hour of need (especially in America, which had not yet joined the war). More typical of Beaton's output of the era are images like 'St Paul's Cathedral After a Heavy Incendiary Raid, London, 1940', in which he highlights the cathedral's lucky escape by framing it within the arches of a bombed-out church.
Stage-managed yet undeniably impactful, Beaton's images offer an intriguing counterpoint to blood-and-gore photojournalism. Fully aware that it was not getting a Robert Capa, the ministry encouraged Beaton to pursue his own style on his travels through India and the Middle East. He may have been out of his comfort zone, but whether photographing a Wren in Portsmouth or ranks of soldiers in Szechuan, his creative instincts in terms of composition, staging and lighting, remained intact.
After the war, Beaton returned to his first love, rejuvenated. Just as theatre had inspired his visual vocabulary during the conflict, his experiences of war would find their way into subsequent work – in particular his designs for Puccini's 'Turandot', which are clearly inspired by his photos from China.
'Not my favourite place,' was Beaton's withering verdict of the Imperial War Museum in a diary entry from 1974, but in this unmissable exhibition the museum has done him proud.