Cecil Beaton’s War Child: Portrait of a Young Victim of the Blitz

LIFE magazine, September 23, 1940
LIFE Magazine
LIFE magazine, September 23, 1940
Cecil Beaton
'40s

Sir Cecil Beaton (Jan. 14, 1904 – Jan. 18, 1980), knighted in 1972, was a 20th-century Renaissance man. In his lifetime, he won four Tony Awards and three Oscars for costume design and art direction. He was a major force in ballet and the opera, and a master photographic portraitists of England’s royals. But equally powerful, if much less known, were his photos from World War II, made when he covered the conflict in England and abroad for Winston Churchill’s Ministry of Information.

One photograph, in particular, cemented Beaton’s reputation as a man capable of chronicling terror as well as beauty. Well over a year before the U.S. entered the war, and as Britain was the lone holdout in Europe against the Third Reich’s juggernaut, a Beaton picture of a young girl named Eileen Dunne graced the cover of LIFE magazine. This deeply sympathetic photograph was as powerful a piece of visual propaganda as any made during those years, and commanded Americans to take a keener interest in a war that, at that stage, still felt very far away. The delicate touch that Beaton applied to his most graceful royal portraits is clearly at work here, as well, in this portrait of an innocent victim of the Blitz.

But perhaps LIFE described the picture best, in its Sept. 23, 1940, issue:

The wide-eyed young lady on the cover is Eileen Dunne, aged 3 3/4. A German bomber whose crew had never met her dropped a bomb on a North England village. A splinter from it hit Eileen. She is sitting in the hospital. A plucky chorus of wounded children had just finished singing in the North English dialect, “Roon, Rabbit, Roon.” The picture was taken by Cecil Beaton, the English photographer who generally specializes in fashionable or surrealist studies of society women. 

“England’s crack society photographer,” as LIFE described Beaton, would go on to photograph five more LIFE covers in the 1940s and ‘50s, mostly of the royal variety, and his work would appear in the magazine’s pages scores of times through the years.

— Liz Ronk is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.

LIFE magazine, September 23, 1940

LIFE Magazine

LIFE magazine, September 23, 1940

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