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© Norman Parkinson Ltd/Courtesy Norman Parkinson Archive

Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon

7 July 2015 Imogen Greenberg

Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon brings together a lifetime of photographs, some personal, others renowned that explore Hepburn’s rising fame as a movie star and fashion icon. London Calling went down there in search of the elusive Ms Hepburn...

The National Portrait’s new exhibition of Audrey Hepburn divides her life in to her rise to stardom, her years of international fame and then her later years and lasting legacy. Whilst the chronology is a standard curatorial choice, it actually means that her best-known years sit comfortably in the middle of the exhibition, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s makes only a brief appearance half way through. Precedence is given instead to the unseen photographs and wonderful stories of her earlier career, and the understated life she chose in her later years. 

Born in Brussels to a Dutch mother and Anglo-Irish father, Hepburn went to boarding school in Kent. She spent World War Two in the Nazi occupied Netherlands. She spent much of the war hungry, and benefited from aid from UNICEF afterwards, sparking her devotion to the cause in later years. She moved to London and quickly landed in the West End as a chorus girl. The projected film reels of her dancing and programmes from these early shows are surprising and lovely. By sheer chance, Antony Beauchamp spotted her ‘dancing eyes’ and launched her modelling career, and acting opportunities followed.

Whilst on location in Monte Carlo, for a small part in a British film, she met French writer Colette, who immediately cast her in the title role of the Broadway adaptation of her novella Gigi. Hepworth was an instant success. Her son, Luca Dotti, recounts how the photo of the two of them together on display in the exhibition, with Hepburn resting her head delicately on Colette’s shoulder, was one of the few portraits of herself that Hepburn hung in their home. She told him as a small boy that this woman had launched her career.

The first room tracks Hepburn’s emergence into Hollywood, but it also marks the emergence of Europe and America from World War Two. Somehow, Hepworth’s image became inextricably bound up in that. Cecil Beaton, who photographed Hepworth many times, said she became the new feminine ideal in the post war period, as ‘it took the rubble of Belgium, an English accent and an American success to launch the striking personality that best exemplifies our new Zeitgeist’. She became so iconic, that Vogue said ‘she has established a new standard of beauty, and every other face now approximates to the ‘Hepburn look’. Where contemporaries like Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell were pin-ups, Hepburn’s look was entirely different.

This new femininity is exemplified in a colour portrait of Hepburn in a pink Givenchy dress, against a backdrop of extravagant pink flowers. An extremely overt depiction of femininity, she glances coyly over her shoulder. Yet, the photos around it show her in trousers and an androgynous white shirt. Hepburn surprised, even confused those trying to capture her in print. Her photograph was taken by the likes of Cecil Beaton, Richard Avedon, and Irving Penn, eminent in their field. Mark Shaw described her as ‘the most intriguingly childish, adult, feminine tomboy I’ve ever photographed... she’s many women wrapped in to one’. They tried to capture, in words and photographs, what it was that made her a star. Her elusiveness often comes through, head tipped to one side or mouth slightly open, not looking directly at the camera. It is refreshing, and often off-guard, when she does.  

Hepburn’s rise to international fame was due to the success of her Hollywood movies, and these films play a strong visual role in this exhibition. So many centred on the theme of transformation, exemplified in the costume choices. In Sabrina, she transformed from a chauffeurs shy daughter to a sophisticated woman. In Funny Face, she was a shy bookshop clerk transformed in to a couture model. My Fair Lady charts the ultimate transformation, as Eliza Doolittle is trained to be a lady. In many ways, Hepburn was charting her own transformation from chorus girl to Hollywood star, over and over. Luca Dotti says she never took this transformation for granted, and once said ‘I was asked to act when I couldn’t act, I was asked to sing in Funny Face when I couldn’t sing, and dance with Fred Astaire, when I couldn’t dance’. She was bemused by the following she gained, in disbelief at how her career had turned out. Hepburn’s star quality eluded definition to her artistic collaborators, her instinctive humbleness contrasting enormously from the reality of how famous she was. A photograph is included, taken in a small Italian town, which shows her film posters plastered on the wall, her face the ever-present background to ordinary life. Across the world, people knew who Hepburn was.

My favourite photograph has Hepburn in a dressing room, preparing for her role in Ondine on Broadway. Taken from behind her head, we see her face reflected twice, once in the mirror before her, and once in a hand held mirror below. Somehow, she has a different expression in each mirror. Despite becoming a fashion icon for an entire generation, in many ways she was impossible to pin down, and so many Audrey’s, familiar and new, come across in this exhibition. But Luca Dotti only sees one woman, ‘a girl who never expected anything, but never lost her ability to be thrilled and amazed by life’.

Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon is at the National Portrait Gallery until 18th October. For more information and to book tickets, please see the website.

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