He was a virtuoso with the camera, a keen observer of cultural and historical trends, an international wit, a brilliant costume and set designer, a painter, an illustrator, a journalist, a war correspondent, an author, an actor, a playwright - and the lover of legendary actress Greta Garbo.

Cecil Beaton, renaissance man, led one of this century's most colorful lives and had numerous careers during his busy and extraordinarily productive 76 years. His work, which spans the jazz age to the jet age, was so prodigious, in fact, that it took two galleries to show just one small fraction at a recent New York City retrospective.One portion of the exhibit - focusing on Beaton's instinct for style and his lifelong passion for clothing design - was at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Organizers were Richard Martin, executive director of the school's Shirley Goodman Resource Center, and Harold Koda, who is a curator at FIT. Pictures on display ran the gamut from shots taken in '20s, when Beaton was photographing models in publisher Conde Nast's famous apartment, to the '30s when he was caught up in surrealism and doing photos of heads popping out of hatboxes, to the 1960s and '70s when he captured top models Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton on film, and caught Paloma Picasso the jewelry designer in a pensive pose.

Also prominently displayed at FIT were examples from Beaton's fashion spreads for such magazines as Vogue, Vanity Fair and Harper's Bazaar; a variety of stylish sketches; intriguing glimpses into his diaries and books in which he wrote of fashion, parties, people, theater and the world's great cities, and costume designs from "My Fair Lady." (He received Oscars for the clothes and sets he created for that show, and it's probably still Audrey Hepburn, ready for the Ascot races, that most people envision when someone mentions Beaton's name.)

At the Grey Art Gallery, New York University, the retrospective shifted to Beaton's personal life and the many celebrities he knew and photographed. In his early years, Beaton was snapping the likes of Gertrude Stein, Edith Sitwell, Picasso and Dali. In the '30s, his artistic camera was on the Astaires, Lillian Gish, Katharine Hepburn and Buster Keaton.

The Royal Family was prominently featured in the display (Beaton is known for his sensitive pictures of the Windsors); there were photos of Hollywood's "royalty," including Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor; pictures of his rustic dwellings, including the one where, according to some, he romanced the elusive Garbo. There also were shots from far off and exotic places - the years when he was documenting Winston Churchill and the role of Britain in the war. And from the final phase of his life, there were photos of Rolling Stone Mick Jagger and pop artist Andy Warhol.

The huge exhibit of more than 600 objects - photographs, illustrations, books, fashion spreads and costumes for films - was assembled and first opened to the public two years ago at the Barbican Art Gallery in London. Organizing the display was Dr. David Mellor, an internationally known historian of photography, who had to sift through thousands of negatives stored away after Beaton's death to achieve the proper historical perspective.

Following the London presentation, the exhibit toured Europe.

The New York presentation, which ran from March until the end of April, was sponsored by Lournay Skin Care Products. In the future, the exhibit will be shown at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and Decoratifs du Montreal (Nov. 3 to Feb. 5), the San Diego Museum of Art (February through March) and the New Orleans Museum of Art, where it will be installed in late 1989.

"Cecil Beaton was a giant. . . maybe the most important artist of our century," said Richard Martin of FIT. "We're delighted the exhibit will be touring the country and Canada."

Much of Beaton's greatness stemmed from inborn talent, according to Martin. But those who have analyzed the photographer's character also attribute his accomplishments to plain hard work. Although he looked like a social lightweight - flitting here and there to the latest bash - in reality, Beaton was one of the hardest-driven artists you can imagine. Behind the dilettante's mask was a workaholic who never stopped trying to improve his skill with a camera or with whatever art form he was exploring.

Another aspect of his greatness was the way he could sense something new on the cultural, social, artistic or fashion scene and then interpret it for the public. Author Truman Capote once said of his friend: "Beaton documented and illuminated the exact attitude of the moment." And thus, Capote explained, the cameraman also was an historian.

Cecil Walter Hardy Beaton was born in 1904 in Hampstead, England, the oldest of four children. At 7, he was taking photographs with a little box camera. At 12, he went off to school at St. Cyprian's where future writers George Orwell and Cyril Connolly were fellow students. At 14, he was at Harrow, and at 18 he enrolled at St. John's College, Cambridge University, where he spent time on photography and theatricals.

After leaving Cambridge without a degree - Beaton never seemed able to settle on just one field of study - he tried and quit various jobs. He did some acting and scenery, worked on his diaries and tried to write a play. The play wasn't particularly successful, but the photographs he did of some bright young people were. And by December of 1926 he had taken a picture of Edith Sitwell as a medieval tomb sculpture from which he instantly gained fame.

By 1927 he was a leading contributor to Vogue magazine, not only as a photographer but as a writer and illustrator. The year after that, Vanity Fair sent him to Hollywood to photograph Gary Cooper and Alice White. Two visits later he met the great love of his life, Greta Garbo. She gave him a yellow rose, and they shared a 14-year-long romance that, most sources say, Beaton truly hoped would end in marriage, even though he had involvements with men along the way. When the affair with Garbo broke up, it wasn't because of jealousy or incompatibility or the usual problems that tear lovers apart. It was because she wouldn't let him publish some pictures he had taken of her, and he'd already promised them to Vogue!

Pictures of Garbo and other celebrities are what many people know and admire Beaton for, while others instantly think of his work with models in fashion. Still others think of his costuming for "Gigi." But Beaton photographed all kinds of other things, including exotic foreign scenes while taking pictures for the Air Ministry and serving as a war correspondent. He also costumed and did sets for dozens of theatrical productions, including ballets, operas, movies and stage shows, and won the Tony for his designs for "Coco."

When he wasn't designing costumes and sets, Beaton often could be found on stage as an actor. When he wasn't acting, he often could be found writing - he produced around 30 books, including a photo-biography, diaries and anthologies concerning his views on taste and fashion. For his accomplishments, he received knighthood.

In 1974 he suffered a severe stroke that paralyzed his right arm. But it didn't stop him for long. Gradually, he began to recover and taught himself to paint again - with his left hand.

In 1976 Cecil Beaton was busily at work - exploring new artistic horizons and even taking an assignment someone half his age would have found grueling: covering the Paris collections for the French issue of Vogue.

The man, quite frankly, defied age by keeping involved and interested in life, his biographer Hugo Vickers points out. The very idea that he was aging or might someday become unable to produce was repugnant to Beaton. His attitude remained youthful and enthusiastic to the last. And when he died four days after his 76th birthday, he left behind a remarkable legacy.