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  • Articles by Sonali

    Audrey Hepburn – Portraits of an Icon

    Actress Audrey Hepburn (1929 -1993) is regarded as the epitome of timeless style and elegance, and has captivated audiences worldwide. Her life and career is reviewed in an exhibition of photographs at the National Portrait Gallery. Many of the 70 photographs on display are sourced from family archives.

    Audrey Hepburn originally aspired to be a ballet dancer. She began her acting career in London in 1948 as a chorus girl in musical ‘High Button Shoes’. She was given modelling assignments – we see photographs of Hepburn striding, fresh-faced, through Richmond Park and Kew Gardens, taken by Bert Hardy (1950).

    What follows is a series of photographs (mostly black and white) that focus on her various film projects, in sequence; taken by some of the most illustrious photographers of the day, including Sir Cecil Beaton, Richard Avedon and Norman Parkinson.

    From ‘Roman Holiday’ (1953), the film for which she won an Oscar, there’s a photograph of Audrey Hepburn and co-star Gregory Peck taken on the Spanish Steps in Rome. Followed by a well known publicity shot by Bud Fraker from ‘Sabrina’ (1954); when she began her lifelong collaboration with fashion designer Hubert de Givenchy.

    Here, she adopts her favourite pose, boldly facing us, left side on - in dramatic monochromatic lighting. In fact we see several portraits like this – variations on a theme, by Richard Avedon and Yousuf Karsh. These are remarkable pictures, but after a while it does feel a bit samey.

    The pictures which stand out capture Audrey off-guard, placing her in a different context; including a close-up, cropped portrait by Irving Penn with her smiling openly, and her warm personality shining through. More highlights include a portrait by Angus McBean, with an intriguing surrealist background – alluding to work of painter Salvador Dali perhaps; and a picture by Norman Parkinson with her standing against a backdrop of shimmering pink flowers.

    The exhibition includes iconic publicity shots by Howell Conant from ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ (1961), which is her most well-known film, with an ever- enduring popularity. Hepburn renders Holly Golightly in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ as a wistful, free spirit; while the true significance of Truman Capote’s novel is downplayed.

    In her later years Audrey Hepburn was known for her humanitarian work. In 1988 she was appointed UN Ambassador. We see pictures of her in Bangladesh and Ethiopia, helping children struggling against famine. This had echoes of her own childhood. Hepburn survived the Dutch ‘Hunger Winter’ of 1944-5, receiving food aid from UNICEF. This terrible experience had no doubt inspired her humanitarian work – and perhaps has given her an air of wistfulness.  

    The back wall is covered with magazines with Audrey on front-cover - alongside a picture of her taken back in 1948, on a promotional photo shoot for KLM airlines; where we see her looking poised and self assured. It’s interesting to note, that, unlike her contemporaries such as Marilyn Monroe, Audrey was mindful to avoid controversy.

    This is an enjoyable, informative and fascinating review of Audrey Hepburn’s career as an actress and fashion icon, but here we have mostly stylized publicity shots. It would be refreshing to see some more spontaneous pictures, capturing the real Audrey.

    Ends 18 October 2015


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