When one thinks of Audrey Hepburn, one thinks in terms of images. That iconic soft focus picture from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, with Hepburn gazing enigmatically yet invitingly into the camera; the audacious expression and equally bold black jumpsuit which has come to represent Funny Face; the expression of glee as she rides on a moped driven by Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday.
The National Portrait Gallery’s ‘Portraits of an Icon’ exhibition traces how different photographers have depicted Hepburn throughout her career, but fails to capture the spirit of the actress. The camera seems fascinated more by her features and her potential to create a striking image than bringing out the enchanting quality which defines her screen performances – rather strange, given that many of the portraits were linked to some of her best-loved films.
Hepburn was famously shy, admitting that she was as far from the extrovert Holly Golightly as could be imagined. On the evidence of these photos, there is a correlation between her timidity and her level of fame. Early photos from Hepburn’s days as a chorus girl capture a spark and joie de vivre which is suddenly lost as her film career flourishes, almost as if a veil is drawn over the eyes. While some might argue that the ambiguous expression draws the viewer in, the number of portraits with this guarded expression suggests that something else is at play. The most effective portraits are surely those which tell a story; it appears that the story here is of Hepburn trying to protect something of herself from the media.
With collections spanning from the Neolithic era to the present, Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum is already a cultural hotspot. The museum’s new exhibition sees it add yet another feather to its cap: until 11th August 2013, it plays host to the UK’s first Stradivarius exhibition. Boasting a collection of 21 instruments by the Antonio Stradivari, the exhibition offers the opportunity to trace the development of the master craftsman’s designs throughout his career.
Before viewing the instruments themselves, visitors watch an introductory video and are acquainted with the method of making a violin. A step-by-step description is accompanied by the appropriate examples, demonstrating the sheer complexity of the process (and making the instruments all the more worthy of admiration). A number of Stradivari’s original tools, models and patterns are on display alongside the craftsman’s letters to his clients. The exhibition contextualises the craftsman as part of a broader North Italian set of instrument makers (although, frustratingly, there is still much biographical information to be uncovered).
Even though I am not a string player, I couldn’t help but marvel at the beauty of the instruments produced by Stradivari. Besides violins, the exhibition also features examples of cello, mandolin and viola. The instruments are intrinsically beautiful: the grain of the wood and attention to detail justify the desirability of the instruments and explain why they are so often held in reserve by collectors. The plaques on each case detail the date of each instrument, along with any distinguishing features (including examples of the ‘Long Pattern’ phase) or notable owners (such as the distinguished violinist and composer Sarasate).
The exhibition contains eleven instruments from Stradivari’s ‘Golden Age’ (1700-1720), including the ‘Viotti’ violin (produced in 1709) and the Ashmolean’s own treasure ‘The Messiah’ of 1716. A personal favourite was the miniature fiddle designed to be held in the crook of the arm: despite its diminutive proportions, it displays the same painstaking care as Stradivari’s other instruments. I found the development of the instruments after their release from the workshop especially fascinating: many have been altered to bring them into line with more recent models. The influence of Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume could be strongly felt throughout the exhibition: the luthier purchased 144 Stradivari instruments in his lifetime, making such bemusing changes as a tailpiece carved with an image of Joan of Arc (as in the 1709 ‘La Pucelle’ violin). Many instruments display signs of wear and tear, whether faded varnish or a scattering of pockmarks across the surface. Although they may be less than perfect, such marks show that the instruments have had a life beyond the display case.
The walls of the room displaying the instruments are covered silhouettes of famous names who have owned Stradivari, emphasising the enduring appeal of the instruments. A prominent figure throughout the exhibition is the virtuoso violinist James Ehnes. Ehnes marked the opening of the display with a gala concert in the Sheldonian, and is one of several musicians who demonstrate and discuss the instruments.
Although I did not opt for the audio guide, I would definitely suggest that other visitors make use of it: there was relatively little information accompanying each instrument, and I was left feeling that my experience would have been much enriched with it. The guide also features a demonstration of each instrument.
Whether you are a string player or not, the exhibition makes for a brilliant insight into the creations of this esteemed instrument maker. The Ashmolean Museum’s Stradivarius Exhibition runs until 11th August 2013.Tickets are £6 (£4 concessions; under-18s free). For more information, visit http://www.ashmolean.org/exhibitions/stradivarius/