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Portraits of an icon
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Portraits of an icon

Hers is one of those faces that everyone knows, like Marilyn Monroe or Princess Diana. Who hasn’t seen that famous picture of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, wielding a cigarette and an enigmatic smile? Which of us isn’t familiar with her as the wide-eyed innocent in Sabrina, or glamorous in a tiara in Roman Holiday? She’s quite possibly the most recognised brunette there ever has been.

So offering something new to audiences in a retrospective of her life was always going to be a challenge for the National Portrait Gallery. Yet the curators of ‘Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon’ have come up trumps; with photographs by everyone from Cecil Beaton to Norman Parkinson and Stephen Meisel, as well as those from her sons’ personal collections.

Audrey Hepburn, 1955 © Norman Parkinson Ltd
Audrey Hepburn (1955) © Norman Parkinson Ltd

But despite the previously unseen photos, the exhibition doesn’t really tell a new story. If I expected it to offer a look at the other Audrey, the starry-eyed youth and the woman she was away from the movie sets, as well as the one who became a Hollywood icon, it turns out they were one and the same.

You start with photos of her at a dance recital as a teenager, guileless but graceful, but very quickly the Audrey we all recognise begins to emerge; in a programme for a revue at Ciro’s nightclub in 1949 (now the site of the National Portrait Gallery), or in an Anthony Beauchamp fashion shot for Tatler that same year, looking far more sophisticated than her 20 years.

If she had an awkward phase in her youth, there’s little evidence of it here. I was struck by a 1950 photograph for the Picture Post: the 21 year old Audrey, not yet a star, is the embodiment of quiet elegance in a checked dress, gloves and beret. And all along, she was a photographer’s dream: natural, with a malleable face, as at home on a film set in a cocktail dress as surrounded by farm animals. There she is in Somalia in 1992, unwell and near the end of her life, yet glowing with purpose. You get the sense that the camera could never really do her justice, that even though she radiated out of every image, there was always more.

Audrey Hepburn by Bud Fraker
Audrey Hepburn by Bud Fraker

Those eyes stare at you constantly, following you around the room, mesmerising in a series of mirrors as taken by Erwin Blumenfeld for Esquire. She’s at her most sensational in the black and white shots; her features almost too classic for full colour, though you can’t help but be entranced by her in a scarlet Givenchy gown on set of Funny Face, or dressed in a pale pink cocktail dress against a backdrop of summer flowers.

As the exhibition moves into the 1960s, you pick up a slight change: her look is more considered, her eyes smokier and her hair bigger as was the fashion, and her enthusiasm for being in front of the camera somewhat diminished. In one Cecil Beaton photograph from Rome, she peers out over the city, ethereal but not as wide-eyed as she once was. “The new grown up face of Audrey Hepburn” is how the Express judged it, but really you get some inkling of the toll of being the most photographed woman in the world.

The whole thing is unashamedly glamorous, a celebration rather than an expose, with not a whisper about how thin she was or any off-camera antics. And the photos are fabulous, albeit that there’s little more to the exhibition that a study of beauty and stardom. There’s not a single one that shows her as a mere mortal; instead we see her wide-eyed in her dressing room, sultry as Ondine, understated yet impeccable in slacks and a white shirt on set of Sabrina. It’s like watching a Mad Men episode: you think that nobody could ever possibly have been this stylish, but the evidence is right in front of you.

064. Audrey Hepburn how to steal a million
Audrey Hepburn in ‘How to Steal a Million’

Towards the end, there’s a selection of magazine covers; Hepburn selling copies in countries around the globe. And in every one, from Queen magazine in 1963, where she is pictured with a scarf covering her hair and oversized sunglasses, to The Picturegoer from 1950, where she is one of an array of stars, she looks nothing short of perfect. No red lines zooming in on her spots or wobbly bits, no front pages about her marital strife or speculation about her weight.

It’s a type of celebrity far removed from that which we see today; a woman constantly in the camera’s glare, yet never caught off guard or depicted as anything less than a star. And on this evidence, it seems that’s how it really was.

Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon

National Portrait Gallery, London, until 18 October 2015

Standard price: Adult: £9 / Concessions £7.50