Audrey Hepburn: Beautifully Reserved

By Zoe Craig Last edited 40 months ago
Audrey Hepburn: Beautifully Reserved ★★★☆☆ 3
Actress Audrey Hepburn (1929-1993) exercising her dog in Richmond Park after a strenuous season in the London revue 'Sauce Piquante', 13 May 1950. Picture Post -- 5035 -- We Take A Girl To Look For Spring -- pub. 1950 (Photo by Bert Hardy/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Actress Audrey Hepburn (1929-1993) exercising her dog in Richmond Park after a strenuous season in the London revue 'Sauce Piquante', 13 May 1950. Picture Post -- 5035 -- We Take A Girl To Look For Spring -- pub. 1950 (Photo by Bert Hardy/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Audrey Hepburn in How to Steal a Million (1966)
Audrey Hepburn in How to Steal a Million (1966)
1955 La Vigna, Italy -- signed  'Halsman N.Y.' -- LIFE Magazine cover 18 July 1955
1955 La Vigna, Italy -- signed 'Halsman N.Y.' -- LIFE Magazine cover 18 July 1955
Audrey Hepburn, 1955 © Norman Parkinson Ltd
Audrey Hepburn, 1955 © Norman Parkinson Ltd
Audrey Hepburn by Cecil Beaton, 1960
Audrey Hepburn by Cecil Beaton, 1960

Londonist Rating: ★★★☆☆

The National Portrait Gallery has a summer blockbuster on its hands. When Londonist arrived to see the new Audrey Hepburn show as the gallery opened at 10am on Friday morning, there were already long queues. The next available slot? 12.30pm. Don't say we didn't warn you.

So it's already one of London's popular tickets. But what of the quality of the show itself?

You can look at portraits of Audrey Hepburn almost any minute of the day, on t-shirts, bags, posters. The eyes, fringe, that face itself is so ubiquitous, it's almost like Mickey Mouse, or a (very beautiful) logo. It feels strange, then, to see these so-familiar features in nascent form, in the childhood photos borrowed from her sons' private collections for the exhibition. The hopeful ballerina in these early photos already has natural beauty and graceful poise. Does she look like she'd go on to become one of the world's biggest film and fashion stars? Probably not.

Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon features a real who's who of post-war photographers: Cecil Beaton, Norman Parkinson, Antony Beauchamp, Philippe Halsman. Over and over, you see that face in different locations, different clothes, different poses, yet still it retains the same quality. It becomes a bit of a game to see photographers attempt to stamp their unique styles on the star (here's Angus McBean trying surrealist Audrey; there's Richard Avedon doing bleached Audrey; Halsman's testing a neorealist Audrey over there) and seeing Hepburn being staunchly Audrey in the middle of it all.

Throughout the show, there are frequent references to an 'intriguing magnetism' or 'enigmatic quality', the idea that this 'icon' is a 'mystery'. We can't help thinking Ms Hepburn a clever actress, who was also perhaps just a private person (she stepped firmly back from the limelight to raise her family in the 1970s). The coy, Mona Lisa smile here, the broad playful smile there, isn't that just a (very good) fashion model doing her job? In our heavily Instagrammed age, Hepburn appears uniquely mysterious because these perfectly professional fashion shoots and movie promos are all we have. There is no 'AudHep' YouTube channel giving us juicy off-set shenanigans, no sex tape.

In 2015, knowing so little about a world-famous female brand could be interpreted as mystifying, inscrutable: instead we saw a very beautiful Hepburn being privately professional, and decided that's certainly admirable, but perhaps a little bit dull.

Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon runs at the National Portrait Gallery until 18 October. Tickets cost £9 (£7.50 conc), booking ahead is highly recommended. Visit npg.org.uk to find out more.  

Last Updated 05 July 2015