Monday, 20 July 2015

Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon

With a treasure trove of images from her family album, this sheds an intimate light on the life of a true icon

Written by Sandra Smith
Sandra-Smith-colour-176Audrey Hepburn was born to a Dutch Baroness and an Anglo- Irish father in 1929. Having spent her formative years in Brussels, at the outbreak of war she and her mother (the father having left the family, a trauma that remained a haunting memory) moved to Holland. Nazi invasion, bitter winters and an inadequate diet took their toll on the young girl’s health, though the food and medical relief she later received from Unicef sparked a lasting gratitude.

In 1948 Hepburn took up a scholarship at the Rambert Ballet School in the hope of realising a long-held ambition. Possibly due to earlier malnourishment, however, she lacked the required strength. Chorus roles in the West End followed, and small film parts, before lead roles in Gigi on Broadway and Roman Holiday – for which she became the first actress to win an Academy Award, Golden Globe and Bafta for a single performance – catapulted her to international stardom.

Although she failed to reach the standards demanded by Madame Rambert, the balletic qualities of grace, poise and style nevertheless became synonymous with the young actress, and are beautifully revealed in this exhibition, which encapsulates Hepburn’s private life and successful career.

Many of the photographs are from the personal collection of her sons, Luca Dotti and Sean Hepburn Ferrer. Early images portray their mother as a child unremarkable in looks yet radiating an innocence and directness in engaging with the camera that would become her trademark.

The meandering gallery follows a carefully choreographed retrospective, taking the viewer through the seasons of Hepburn’s life, during which she was captured by the 20th century’s leading photographers, including Cecil Beaton and Angus McBean. The multitude of images range from fashion shots for Marshall & Snelgrove to photographs taken on the set of the iconic Breakfast At Tiffany’s, each revealing her individuality – a style refreshingly at odds with that of Hollywood’s overtly glamorous and curvaceous actresses.

A section devoted to magazine covers confirms Hepburn’s status as one of the world’s most photographed women, one whom Givenchy revelled in every opportunity to dress.

As well as being committed to her career, Hepburn was devoted to her children and to helping the underprivileged. In 1988 she became a Unicef ambassador, working tirelessly for the organisation until a few months before her death five years later.

This insatiable appetite for life and work is reflected in her sons’ loyalty to their mother’s memory and humanitarian priorities, and it is thanks to them that the NPG is showcasing the rise of one of the world’s truly international stars, her years as a screen icon and her passion for philanthropy. 

Until 18 October at the National Portrait Gallery, St Martin’s Place, London WC2: 020-7306 0055,

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