Audrey Hepburn got big break here, says National Portrait Gallery ahead of new exhibition

By Richard Moss Published: 02 December 2014

Did you know the National Portrait Gallery had a hand in the career of Audrey Hepburn?

a photo of a woman wearing a pink dress next to pink flowers
Audrey Hepburn photographed wearing Givenchy by Norman Parkinson, 1955© Norman Parkinson Ltd/Courtesy Norman Parkinson Archive
In the heady trajectory of Audrey Hepburn’s career, it’s easy to forget her humble beginnings on the London West End stage.

But the Oscar-winning star of Roman Holiday and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, who became the epitome of glamour during the late 1950s and 1960s, got her big break at the National Portrait Gallery. Kind of.

The gallery's summer 2015 show, Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon, coincides with the 65th anniversary of Hepburn’s little known but career-changing performance at the renowned West End nightspot Ciro’s – a club in the space now occupied by the gallery's Public Archive.

Hepburn moved to London from Amsterdam in late 1948 to take up a ballet scholarship at the Rambert Ballet School in Notting Hill. After a number of stage performances as a chorus girl in the West End, she began performing in revues at what was then London’s leading nightclub - Ciro’s on Orange Street.

And it was there that she was talent spotted as she performed in Cecil Landeau’s late-night production Petite Sauce Tartare, in 1949, and Summer Nights, in 1950.

Appearances in early British films including One Wild Oat (1951), Laughter in Paradise (1951) and Secret People (1952), followed together with her performance in Gigi in 1951, which confirmed her as a new star.

The rest, as they say, is Hollywood history.

Early examples of photography from this period include family photographs of Hepburn practicing ballet as a young woman, as well as examples of her early work in London as a fashion model for photographs by Antony Beauchamp.

Curators are also returning to the highly successful Crookes Lacto-Calamine skin cream campaign, photographed by Angus McBean in 1950.

a magazine cover showing a woman holding a cat in front of two champagne glasses
Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffanys by Howell Conant, published on the cover of Jours de France, 26 January 1962
A rarely seen series of photographs by Mark Shaw, taken during the making of Sabrina in 1953 and published as a photo essay in Life magazine, will offer a unique insight into Hepburn’s life on and off-set, with Shaw granted unprecedented behind-the-scenes access for the photo essay.

Describing Hepburn as “one of the world’s most celebrated actresses”, Pim Baxter, the gallery's Deputy Director, said she was “delighted” to be holding a major photography exhibition exploring the life and work of such a "significant" and "much-loved" figure who spent the formative early years of her career in Britain.

“It is particularly appropriate that the exhibition will be staged in such close proximity to where she performed as a young woman at the very start of her career,” she added.

Among the other highlights in the show, which has been curated by Terence Pepper, Senior Special Advisor on Photographs, and Helen Trompeteler, Associate Curator of Photographs, are photographs by Larry Fried, showing Hepburn in her dressing room on Broadway for Gigi (1951) and shots captured in Italy during the filming of War and Peace (1955) by Philippe Halsman and George Daniell.

Visitors will also be treated to publicity photographs for Funny Face (1957) and Terry O’Neill’s on-set photographs during the making of films How to Steal a Million (1966) and Two for the Road (1967).

Vintage magazine spreads, from the Picturegoer in 1952 to the front cover of Life magazine, featuring Howell Conant's shots of Hepburn in Givenchy for her role in Breakfast at Tiffany’s in 1961, will join a selection of original film posters and other ephemera to complete the story of one of the world’s most photographed women.

Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon runs at the National Portrait Gallery, London from July 2 - October 18 2015.

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