Ladybird by Design – House of Illustration

In the world of Ladybird books, the sun is always shining, the sky the purest blue and everyone is smiling. Mum is usually in the kitchen or doing something particularly feminine like sewing or grocery shopping; dad is often making chicken coops or fixing the car, while their ideal children are being responsibly fun learning about nature, reading fairy tales or fashioning their own toys. Although a hundred years old and a core feature of everyone’s childhood (until fairly recently) the plethora of Ladybird books and all their sub-series espouse an idyllic post-war England of decency, thirst for knowledge and happiness with one’s place in the scheme of things. They reflect a world that almost no one ever lived in but we’re prepared to forgive them for the hours of joy and considerable learning they have provided for generations of children.

Most recognisable is their illustrative style, the hand-drawn pictures of domestic, scientific and working life produced by a variety of artists yet instantly recognisable as the Ladybird style. The latest exhibition at the House of Illustration celebrates the heyday of Ladybird images from the late 1940s to the 1970s and the way in which they offered an optimistic and consistent image of life at that time. You’ve almost certainly read one but what struck me most was the incredible variety of topics they covered from the purely entertaining to the entirely factual accounts of say public services or what to see in autumn. It is the diversity of this exhibition that really hammers home just how prolific Ladybird was and what an incredible resource they have been for the last 100 years.

The series I remember most clearly were the ‘Well Loved Tales’ which seemed to have the most elaborate eighteenth-century-style illustrations on the front. Sleeping Beauty in particularly remains most clearly in my mind (although sadly not featured here) with a dark haired girl in a yellow dress asleep on a four-posted bed while a hooded crone sleeps beside her. The name of the illustrator was never recorded on the front but it was Eric Winter whose work in the 1970s is featured in the exhibition with his cover art for Cinderella and Puss in Boots, both of which immediately jogged my memory. These were definitely my favourite Ladybird series and testament to their longevity given that I was reading them years after publication and in fact after Winter’s own death (1981). Clearly I’d not forgotten the magical quality of these images before even Disney replaced them with their own character versions.

A book I didn’t read was ‘Shopping with Mother’ which is shown in its entirety in the exhibition with each detailed illustration taking the well-dressed 1960s mother and her two adorable and well behaved children on a trip to the various shops. Armed only with a wicker basket, Harry Wingfield’s pictures are the very model of sedate family life as they support a variety of local shops, grocer, chemist, florist and butcher included. Without the accompanying text, you are of course free to interpret the story and I couldn’t help but find the children a little creepy – the girl had pigtail plaits and the boy an occasional demonic look – too many 70s horror films perhaps but at one stage the boy buys a hammer from the hardware shop which his mother clearly thinks is acceptable behaviour for an 8 year old. And later we see him carrying in it in the foreground as they go to the next shop – definitely a bit worrying!

Reinforcing the social structure was only one side of the argument, however and there are some interestingly unglamorous studies from the ‘People at Work’ series and The Story of Oil. John Berry is the artist here and we get to see miners, policeman and the entire collection of In a Big Store with ordinary looking people answering phones, helping in a fitting room or eating their lunch in a drab canteen. None of this shows people as special or heroic particularly, just honest and hard-working, getting on with their daily lives. It’s actually fascinating to see images like that, implying to children (perhaps quite rightly) that one day they will grow up and take on a normal job for which they will be happy. Perhaps a sweeping generalisation, but today it seems everyone thinks they’re going to be a famous singer or actor, but the vast majority will end up in a more everyday occupations. The interesting thing about Ladybird’s presentation of this fact is that it is alright and most people in the pictures seem fairly happy with their lot.

Some of the nature pictures are among the best in the exhibition and The Ladybird Book of The Seashore and Seashore Life again unlocked a long forgotten memory. Most fascinatingly this book was published in 1964, about 25 years before I would come to use it. Similarly the historical series celebrating great men and women of history, which would have modern historians shaking their fists in rage at idolising individuals, was part of my childhood too, particularly The Story of the First Queen Elizabeth originally published in 1958 but was still in use in the late 80s / early 90s. Perhaps nothing reinforces the central arguments of this exhibition better than that – as they claim, not only have Ladybird books been a vital resource for 100 years but that the 1940s-1970s were a golden age of publication which generations of children would learn from.

The exhibition ends with a useful video talking about Douglas Keen who had the initial idea for a series of educational books and became the Editorial Director. Interviewing his daughter and the author of the accompanying book, we learn more about the management of the business including Keen’s personal engagement with the illustrators which encouraged their regular collaboration but also gave them a firm steer on what was required. Equally interesting were the window displays which Keen personally oversaw at both tiny independent bookshops and large chains to boost sales. Videos can often be a bit bland or supplementary to an exhibition but this one helped to bring together a lot of things you see drawing links between that initial process of illustration and how it became a commercial business.

The only thing that is really lacking from this charming exhibition is a proper sense of all the illustrators who worked on the various Ladybird series and why their particular skills were chosen. There are a few information plates which indicate art degrees and careers working for magazines and comics but the process of forming the book from conception to print could have been better drawn out. It would also have been useful to get a sense from the various artists what it meant to them to be asked to draw for Ladybird – did it have the same cache it does now or was it a just chance to pay the bills?

That aside, The House of Illustration, having already set a high bar for itself with previous shows about Quentin Blake and Mac Conner, has delivered another excellent exhibition. While for many this will be a nostalgia trip, it’s also an opportunity to see the breadth of Ladybird’s output and reflect on how successfully it achieved its vision to enrich and to educate. It may be a semi-made-up land of eternal sunshine and established gender roles, but it is one that encouraged children to be curious about the world, and enjoy the acquisition of knowledge – a fine celebration of 100 years of Ladybird learning.

Ladybird by Design is at the House of Illustration until 27 September. Tickets are £7.70 for adults (£7 without giftaid) and several concessions are available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Bakkhai – Almeida Theatre

Gosh women were blamed for a lot of things in ancient and medieval texts. Seen as lascivious, corruptible and unable to control their own passions, the notion of Eve as the tempter of Adam served to damn the weakness of women for centuries. In the Bakkhai it is the women who are stirred by the arrival of the God Dionysus in human form, it is they that run wild in the woods in a frenzy of drunken lust and the women’s actions that ultimately bring destruction to the city of Thebes and its leading male citizen. But in the modern world we are bombarded with the hedonistic tales of male bankers and, if the old News of the World is to be believed, footballers too. How then can this new production at the Almeida reconcile those two things, honouring a traditional story whilst still making it feel relevant in this very different modern age?

As this production opens Ben Whishaw in the role of Dionysus addresses the audience directly. With flowing mannerisms, long loosely tied hair (reminiscent of David Tennant’s additional tresses in Richard II) and wearing modern dress he represents an entity between genders. He tells us that as the son of Zeus and a mortal women he is a God, known as Bacchus to some, Dionysus to others, and has assumed entirely human form to liberate people through wine and revelry. Having travelled from place to place he has amassed a considerable following, a train of women (the Chorus) who worship him. Arriving at the gates of Thebes he is challenged by its ruler Pentheus who refuses to believe in Dionysus’s divinity, so the God concocts a plan to humiliate and punish his denier.

For anyone who had imagined Bacchus resembled the Ghost of Christmas Present from A Christmas Carol, Whishaw’s performance will come as a surprise. There is a hint of madness in the occasional giggle he emits when describing his lifestyle and the effete manner draws a little from his own Richard II for the BBC. Yet there is a darkness, arrogance and considerable steel in his characterisation, assured of his right to be adored and to dole out cruel, and arguably disproportionate, justice to any who cross him. Whishaw also plays a couple of other roles including a very credible old man and Pentheus’s assistant who describes the gruesome outcome in which Whishaw is extremely affecting. As one of our finest actors this will be no surprise to those who saw his tragic role in Peter and Alice with Judy Dench, a vehicle that perhaps didn’t quite do justice to its leads.

Berti Carvel’s Pentheus is just as compelling to watch and the scenes between him and Whishaw are intense and laced with danger His Thebian leader is very much the modern presidential politician, smart suited and oozing authoritative charm which gives added meaning to his confrontations with the wispy Whishaw on the nature of power. His refusal to believe in the God, Carvel interestingly suggests, is more a fear of being unable to control urges within himself, and even when dressed for the boardroom he wears a line of silver paint down his nose, just hinting at a more colourful nature within. Later in the action he almost unrecognisably plays his own mother with a demonic force, bewitched by Dionysus and cooing over her female strength.

This brings us back to the question of making this production palatable to modern women. Partially the answer is to make the chorus of women into powerful tribal warriors, shaping the destinies of the cities they pass through, and having all the debauchery and wildness take place off stage. Additionally, as this interpretation clearly shows, it is largely the powerful men who refuse to acknowledge the God in human form and through the women Dionysus humiliates Pentheus and tears down the world of male political rule. This male blindness is seen as leading to his own destruction.

The 10 diverse women who form the chorus nicely represent differences in age and race, moving the story along with some beautiful a cappella singing or rhythmically speaking the lines. They are the representation of the Bakkhai so we see them physically change their modern dresses for the ‘fawn skins’ and ivy wreaths which denote their absorption into the bacchic rituals. As tensions mount the women adorn tribal make-up as if entering into battle and their music is interspersed with ululating cries and fierce animalistic calls. If the audience is in any doubt about the physical power of women as the instrument of this God, then Agave’s brutal speech about the joy of hunting and killing her prey, relished by Carvel, will dispel them.

It’s all laced with meaning and although their songs are beautiful, what you don’t get in this production is a proper sense of the wildness and carnage the people of Thebes were so afraid of. So much of the action takes place off-stage that this perfectly tuned choir of women don’t quite seem as depraved or dangerous as they should. The women seem devoted, possessed even by Dionysus but they feel too sanitised, powerful but not unfettered enough. Perhaps then, this is the compromise the production has had to make to ensure that the female characters appeal to the twenty-first century woman – they can be tough and resilient but they can’t be entirely without restraint. You certainly don’t leave the theatre thinking that women are all weak and corrupt, which, intentionally or not, given this play’s content is some small victory for the production team.

There were a few empty seats and very reasonably ticket prices when I went. A barely restricted view seat at the back of the circle (Row E) was only £10 so well worth a try to enjoy the latest entry into the Almeida’s Greek season. There’s not a lot of Greek drama in the West End (although a transfer has been announced for Oresteia to the Trafalgar Studios) and it’s hard to imagine seeing a production like this at any of the big theatres, so it’s well worth heading to Angel to see this while you can. And of course with the imminent release of Spectre, interest in Ben Whishaw will be renewed so this is a good time to see one of his finest performances.

Bakkhai is at the Almeida until 19 September with tickets at £10-£38.


Hamlet – The Barbican

Is Benedict Cumberbatch the one? This is the question on everyone’s lips at the moment. I am, of course, talking about whether this will be the greatest Hamlet any of us has ever seen, because I’m increasingly coming round to the idea that maybe there’s one perfect Hamlet out there for you and when you’ve found him (or her) then that performance will be the benchmark for every other Hamlet that follows. The Guardian’s eminent theatre critic Michael Billington recently wrote an interesting article suggesting that actors can never fail in their depiction of the character because there is so much scope for individual interpretation which can never be ‘wrong’, but I would take that a step further and say that we as the audience bring our reading of this play along with us, whether we’ve studied it, seen it 100 times or never, at some point an actor’s version and our own will intersect and bam you’ve got your Hamlet.

Without making this sound like an insipid rom-com, you’ll probably only find one ever, maybe two if you’re really lucky. That’s not to say you won’t appreciate, enjoy or love other Hamlets, but deep down somewhere there’ll be only one that really got to you. Mine was David Tennant in 2008, which even 7 years later I can happily gush incessantly about. I’d seen other impressive versions including Alex Jennings and Sam West (both at the Barbican incidentally) but Greg Doran’s 2008 RSC production showed me Hamlet as I had never seen it before, as a thriller, moving at an incredible pace to it’s  inevitable conclusion. I had studied this play for A-level, knew it inside out, yet I was on the edge of my seat almost willing the story to turn out differently. And Tennant was everything I’d ever wanted Hamlet to be, consumed with devastating grief that spoke of so much pain, agonising over life and death, mercurial but turning wonderfully on a hair’s breadth between comedy and tragedy. It was electrifying.

And there have been many other recent Hamlets that may have been the one for you – Rory Kinnear, Simon Russell Beale, Michael Sheen or Ben Whishaw – and these are just the ones since 2000. So, given the openness of the text you pretty much have free reign to like any Hamlet you want if you think the actor brings the right qualities to the role – although honestly if you think Mel Gibson was a perfect Hamlet you should expect exile as minimum punishment. Yet I can’t recall a Hamlet that’s created so much off-stage drama as this new Barbican version; Cumberbatch refusing to sign autographs, critics sneaking in to publish unethical early reviews, rows about fans filming the production, the cost of preview seats – and amid all of this what is really sad is that no one is talking about the work, so let’s do that now.

What everyone really wants to know is how good is Cumberbatch? And the answer is fairly good with potential.  Now I need to caveat this by saying it’s still a preview performance, although it’s now got 10-12 shows under its belt and 20 days of previews is unusual. Not that I knew I was booking a preview a year ago having waiting 3 hours in an online queue of 4000, given just 5 mins to book some seats – back then the press night would not have been set. Anyway, Cumberbatch’s take is an outraged and angry Hamlet, and we first see him sentimentally packing his father’s things suggesting their close connection. This sense of outrage is then fed through the performance which Cumberbatch uses well to make sense of Hamlet’s frustration with his mother, disgust with Claudius and anger at his own failure to act.

The soliloquies have everyone sitting forward in anticipation and Cumberbatch feeds the anger through them so each one builds into a tirade against the circumstances of his life (purists will be delighted to know that ‘To be or not to be’ is back in its proper place). He has to fight against the scale of the set to put across the intimacy of these internal struggles so all credit to him for almost winning that battle, and as the evening draws on his performance grows in confidence. Cumberbatch is particularly adept at drawing out the humour and this is one of the high points. There are still things to work on though, particularly I felt at the beginning where he’s not quite connecting to the depths of grief necessary for the ‘Too, too solid flesh’ speech, and although this is clearly a production choice there’s not quite enough emphasis on the philosophising side of Hamlet, particularly in the early contemplation of life and death, and the later acceptance of fatality. These are things he can quite clearly do as his fantastic lead in After the Dance at the National pre-Sherlockian fame proved, but overall it felt that other decisions in this production somehow mute the depth he was trying to convey and actually do his performance quite a disservice.

Its set in the hall of a large country house with sweeping staircase, littered with paintings and memorabilia that emphasise the military life and country pursuits. Designer Es Devlin has created another beautiful set and while the scale of it may infer the grandeur of court,  it destroys the tension of a small group of people holed up together. It just doesn’t feel claustrophobic enough so you never quite get that sense that events are teetering on a knife’s edge. Lyndsey Turner’s has made the same mistake here that she did in A Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, there’s lots of talking but it didn’t feel like it was building to anything. Hamlet is a revenge tragedy so there should be a certain inevitability driving this; from the moment he agrees to act he is doomed, but that over-arching shape to the production, which the director gives, is lacking. So even the final scene felt botched, with all the tension dissipated – as the bodies stacked up it should feel epic but was a garbled rush that was slightly unsatisfactory.

There are several reasons for this, one is that the other characters felt pale and in the background, which is no reflection on the crop of very fine actors here. Lots of the text has been cut so while Polonius is often a viciously controlling, verbose and creepy character, here he just seemed a bit quirky being dispatched before you’d even noticed he was there. It also takes a long time to get insights into Claudius and Gertrude, and until pretty much 2 hours in when they get their own focus. Ciaran Hines is completely compelling in Claudius’s prayer scene to the point you almost sympathise but we’re not seeing that danger early on. Anastasia Hille is very good in the Closet scene which is transposed to the Grand Hallway, as her Gertrude pleads ignorance but the motherly tenderness of concern for her son is not embedded early enough. Similarly there is restraint in the other characters too, including Laertes who reacts to the death of his father and sister with a surprising sense of ‘oh well’ which doesn’t quite align with the later demand for Hamlet’s death. All of these performances could be more colourful, and it seemed liked they’d been asked to hold it back. Maybe they’re saving it for the press but maybe it’s also to ensure the light stays on our star-Hamlet, which is fine but in doing so they give Cumberbatch less to bounce off and less reason for his character’s predicament, thus undermining his deeper portrayal.

This is by no means an awful production and I enjoyed watching what has clearly been designed to be a visual and accessible version of the play. There are also some interesting ideas which made me think, particularly the emphasis on childhood (seen on that cryptic poster) and games demonstrated through Hamlet’s toy soldier fort and the player’s toy theatre onstage. It’s hinting at questions about the infantilization of Hamlet as a character through the close connection with his parents and disgust at his mother’s remarriage. So there is an almost rites of passage element to this where he must pack away childish things and deal with adult themes of murder and lust. I think that’s a really interesting interpretation of the play but there’s only a surface engagement with that at the moment and something that could really set this apart from other productions.

So there you have it, a lot of unrealised potential and some unfortunate directorial choices. Cumberbatch is very good in spite of those choices and it’s clearly a mark of his skill that you can see him fighting to give a deep performance in a stylised and at times superficial production. I almost wanted to lift the entire cast out of this toy theatre and plonk them into another version to let them fully realise all their roles, and I fear that the shape of this production won’t ever let them do that. But I await later reviews eagerly. Perhaps fundamentally the production still needs to position itself on the key questions and even if you decide not to address the politics, or the philosophy of it, the production itself needs to enhance rather than restrain the acting. Is Benedict Cumberbatch the one? Not for me but he will be for lots of people and I hope the rest of the run gives him the space to develop it, he certainly deserves that.

Hamlet is at the Barbican until 31st October. Advanced tickets are sold out but 30 seats at £10 are available each day plus returns so check the website. NT Live will be broadcasting to cinemas on 15 October but best to book now as that is also selling quickly. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Three Days in the Country – National Theatre

It’s rare to see a Russian drama that feels as light and fresh as this one, so used as we are to claustrophobic sets and a sense of pointless oppression. Frequently in such plays, the characters sit around for several hours talking about ploughing or some equally riveting subject while not confessing how they all really feel about each other. For all the burning passions that are supposed to exist under the surface, nothing much actually happens and everyone goes home again more or less in the exact same position as they arrived. But actors enjoy the intellectual challenge so Chekhov in particular remains a perennial favourite on the London stage, but I’d long come to the conclusion that perhaps Russian drama is not for me.

Then, the National Theatre came along with this glorious adaptation of Turgenev’s Three Days in the Country, a figurative lightning strike that revealed to me what everyone else has been seeing under the corn threshing chat all these years, and perhaps more importantly proves that the National Theatre really is back in business. Now I’ve certainly given the NT a very hard time in the last couple of years, signifying the death throes of the previous director’s reign and the warming up of the Rufus Norris era (not that changing management is any excuse for over a year of shoddy work).  But suddenly the clouds have parted and the sun is shining on the Southbank once again. This year I’ve seen 5 NT production, 3 of which were genuinely excellent (Man and Superman, The Beaux’ Stratagem and this one), 1 was decent (Rules for Living) and 1 was dreadful (A Light Shining in Buckinghamshire) which is a pretty impressive hit rate in just 6 months.

Patrick Marber, most famously the writer of Closer, has adapted and directed this new version of Turgenev’s novel A Month in the Country, shortening the action to a weekend, stripping out a lot of superfluous stuff and stuffing it full of much needed laughs. As the curtain rises to reveal a smattering of furniture and Perspex walls the enormous Lyttelton stage looks, well enormous, and you wonder how they will ever create the stifling tension of a group of people holed up together with raging emotions. This is going to drown them I thought, but I couldn’t have been more wrong; without the clutter you get to focus entirely on the people, allowing the actors to create buckets of tension and drama. The decision to strip back classic texts and present them in more powerful minimalist staging is all the rage, and what Ivo Van Hove has done for Arthur Miller, here Patrick Marber has done for Turgenev, and it is a huge success.

The story takes place in the sumptuous country home of Natalya (Amanda Drew), a confident and intimidating landowner who is bored with her husband. During this weekend an older neighbour Bolshintsov (Nigel Betts) has coerced the local doctor (Mark Gatiss) to introduce him to the family so he may propose to Vera (Lily Sacofsky) the family ward. But Vera is in love with the handsome young tutor Belyaev (Royce Pierrson) who himself is attracted to Natalya, as well as her maid Katya (Cherrelle Skeete). Meanwhile the doctor has designs on Lizaveta a companion (Debra Gillett) while Rakitin (John Simm) a long-term friend of the family has nursed a love for Natalya for twenty years. The various permutations of these unrequited love stories are played out with plenty of confusion between love and lust, misunderstandings and a houseful of broken hearts by the end.

Bestriding it all are three outstanding performances from Drew, Gatiss and Simm who offer different but affecting insights into their characters. Drew’s Natalya is comfortable in her world as mistress of a large estate – and again the openness of the staging really emphasises the size of the house and land – while happily accepting the devoted attentions of the men around her, but like many Russian heroines suppressing a wilder nature. As the story evolves Drew is particularly impressive in subtly portraying her jealousy of Vera even when encouraging her into the arms of the man she wants for herself. And later in the play when she finally succumbs to her own passions Drew shows how its release completely breaks Natalya forcing her to give way to public emotion, something she could never have done as the play began.

Equally affecting is John Simm’s performance as the ardent long-term suitor without the slightest hope of victory. This Rakitin is a rational and intelligent man willing to accept a close friendship with Natalya rather than nothing at all, and Simm creates a man who it likeable and sympathetic. Each of the three central roles have their moment to shine and Simm’s comes in the Second Act where he too succumbs to 20 years of pain as he continues to counsel Natalya about her love for another man while clinging to a stolen moment between them years before, finally accepting it will never be repeated.

Gatiss, always a great character actor, excels here as Shpigelsky the local quack desperate for social advancement. His association with the ‘big house’ is reinforced by a comical attempt to woo the perplexed Lizaveta by listing his faults and expectations. In a scene not dissimilar to Mr Darcy telling Elizabeth Bennett that he’ll have her despite her inferiority, Gatiss’s doctor tries to strike a bargain with the companion while hilariously dealing with a bad back brought on my being on one knee. He is equally amusing in an earlier scene having drunk too much at dinner, late-night gossiping with the other guests. One of Gatiss’s greatest gifts as a comic actor is to suddenly show the pain beneath the surface which is used so poignantly here, giving the doctor’s character greater depth and winning the audience’s compassion.

It is a great cast who give a convincing sense of a busy country manor, although the character of the tutor that everyone is in love with seems a little flat, so it’s hard to see what all the ladies are so excited about. Similarly Natalya’s husband Arkady is currently an interesting sketch, and performed well by John Light, but seems quite under-used and it would be useful to learn a little more about their marriage to explain her frustrations.  Nonetheless it is a wonderful couple of hours reinforced by Irene Bohan’s costumes and particularly Mark Thompson’s unusual but intriguing stage design which again feels so fresh. You may initially be confused by the hovering red door in Act One which comes to earth after the interval, but its physical purpose eventually makes sense as well as its role as a symbol of everyone’s passions which are eventually released.

Three Days in the Country is probably the best Russian play that I have seen, given real verve by Marber’s loose adaptation. If you like your Turgenev traditional and suffocating then this may be a bit radical, but it was a joy to see something that felt so light yet still created the right level of emotional drama. More than anything, the last few months have completely restored my faith in the National Theatre as a place for interesting and smart adaptations of classic plays. Whether the same can be said of any new writing remains to be seen, but with greater availability of lower priced tickets and an interesting new season from the autumn there is a lot to be excited about. The National is back in business indeed.

Three Days in the Country is at the National Theatre until 21 October. Tickets start at £15 and better seats are available at £20 from 1pm on Friday afternoons as part of the theatre’s Friday Rush initiative.


Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon – National Portrait Gallery

Audrey Hepburn has long been seen as the epitome of style and audiences are guaranteed to flock to film showings and exhibitions. Some old Hollywood stars never seem to lose their glamour but it’s a glamour that’s frozen in time, in those golden years from about 1940-1965. Rarely do you see anything before or particularly after that time as said starlet wrinkles and fades. Arguably this is true of Hepburn’s image, forever trapped in her roles as Holly Golightly or Eliza Doolittle, so this new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery while focusing on these years is also a rare chance to see a smattering of pictures from her later life.

This exhibition tells the story of the one time ballet dancer and show girl who became an icon, yet while these pictures are beautiful, all Hepburn gives the viewer is her image and there is little hint of the personality beneath or the real life she was living off-screen. It seems unusual now where celebrity exposures are a daily occurrence (although happily some still maintain a level of discretion over their personal lives), but for most their knowledge of Hepburn is almost entirely related to her films which is presumably what makes her image so powerful – it is untarnished by over familiarity with her off-screen life.

The exhibition opens with a number of early images of Hepburn’s dance training as well as showcasing her ballet shoes. This is accompanied by promotional flyers and pictures from her days in the chorus of various music hall type performances where her looks were first spotted. Soon, Hepburn had become a model and photographed by those including Cecil Beaton and thus, this exhibition shows the beginning of her long association with clothing and style. This chronological approach soon moves on to her early film roles with a number of stills and off-duty but clearly posed shots between scenes, throughout which Hepburn of course looks as poised and stylish as you would expect.

But it’s at this point, coming into that series of iconic films from Roman Holiday to Charade, that it began to depart from its own determination to examine Hepburn’s influence. Yes we’d seen picture after picture proving she wore a lot of very nice clothes but somehow everything began to look the same, lacking any particular insight into her lifestyle and personality. Hepburn began her career when the studio system was at its height, controlling not just the films each star made but also their lives on and off screen. Is it inconceivable then that Hepburn’s style was actually forced on her by the studio bosses? This lifelong association with Givenchy which the exhibition repeatedly romanticises could also be boiled down into a mutually lucrative deal between the movie makers and a famous fashion designer offered an unheard of level of publicity via the silver screen. How better to sell your clothes then by getting a beautiful starlet to wear them.

Now I’m not for a moment saying that this is how it happened, maybe Hepburn was Givenchy’s champion taking his work from film to film, but nowhere in this exhibition is that proven. Famous actors today endorse all kinds of products and some have been associated with big fashion houses for a year or two. Using the images alone how can someone looking back in the future insist that Nicole Kidman made Chanel a modern powerhouse or that Eddie Redmayne determined Burberry’s 21st-century look? We don’t see Hepburn off duty at any point and even the pictures that seem as though they’ve caught her unawares are still quite stagey, so from this exhibition we can’t know for sure whether it was Hepburn, Givenchy or the fat cats at the studios who really created her style.

This debate leads on to a discussion about the creation of iconic images. There is no doubt that Hepburn was one of the faces of the Twentieth Century but at some point, through no fault of her own, her image became devalued and commercialised. I lost count of how many student rooms had a poster of that Breakfast at Tiffany’s image of her in a restaurant (shown in this exhibition), and not to mention those nasty box print images of her silhouette flogged by the people at Argos and such like. So hasn’t looking at these overfamiliar pictures of Breakfast at Tiffanys now lost some of their style and allure? These are questions you’d expect the Portrait Gallery to address in the exhibition, i.e. to what extent has this over-emphasis on Hepburn’s fashion credentials led to a greater commercialisation of her image that has ultimately cheapened it?

For Hepburn too, what were the consequences of selling her ‘face’ in this way? The pictures here are accompanied by the barest knowledge of her personal life with fleeting references to her three major relationships (two of which were marriages) and her two sons who colluded in this exhibition. So what were the tensions between the public and private versions of Hepburn, what did fame, celebrity and icon-status mean to her. Was it a burden or a delight, and what effect did it have on her family?  One thing this exhibition gives is a number of shots of Hepburn in her later years both on film and magazine covers, as well as her charity work in Africa. Given that our view of her is eternally stuck in the 1960s, it was actually fascinating to see her age, admittedly gracefully, but still an interesting contrast to the elfin 30-year old we’re bombarded with.

This exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery is by no means a bad thing, despite what it may look like above. The images are interesting as objects of beauty certainly reinforcing society’s obsession with the image of Audrey Hepburn, so if you’re a fan or just want to wallow in some reverence of the golden age of Hollywood film then you’ll certainly enjoy this. It’s reasonable value at £9 although I was only in there for about 40 minutes and I tarried while others stalked though, but then the Portrait Gallery has lots of other free things you can see while you’re there.

Lots of lovely photography, but I couldn’t help feeling the whole thing was rather soulless and didn’t even begin to tackle some of the big questions about the commercialisation of image. Hepburn is undoubtedly an icon and a worthy subject for exploration, yet somehow this exhibition is a little too reverential and takes too much at face value. It perpetuates the myths rather than questioning them to offer up new insight into a woman whose image adorns a thousand student walls.

Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon is at the National Portrait Gallery until 18 October. Entrance is £9 although small concessions are available.    


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