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Vanity Fair: Exhibition good, cafe bad

By Holden Caulfield 6 June 2009 12

I went along to the new Vanity Fair exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery this morning. On show are numerous “celebrity” photographic portraits as featured in the magazine, as well as samples of the magazine from all eras.

A quick history lesson on the mag to help add some context. The magazine first launched in 1913 under the title Dress and Vanity Fair. After a brief spell, Condé Nast relaunched in 1914 using the sole title of Vanity Fair and the magazine ran until 1936. At this point publication ceased for almost 50 years, until its most relaunch in 1983.

I saw a brief snippet about the exhibition on the news the other night, which mainly focused on the current era. So, I knew to expect the “More Demi Moore” image, portraits of Princess Diana and other modern day beautiful people. There was also a good showing of Australian talent from recent times, mainly with acting backgrounds, including Heath Ledger, Cate Blanchett and Nicole Kidman. Magazine spreads featuring other supposed lesser lights from Australia, but no less beautiful (I’m looking at you Naomi Watts), are on show inside display cabinets.

So, I knew to expect the modern day celebs, but I didn’t expect to see portraits of George Bernard Shaw, HG Wells, a young Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, Bette Davis, Josephine Baker, Cary Grant, Jesse Owens and many other giants of the literary, Hollywood and entertainment worlds. For me, seeing images of such icons captured in their prime was worth the ticket price alone. Also worth noting was the simple, classic layout and design of the 1930s magazine spreads on show.

I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition and reckon the $10 entry fee is money well spent. I certainly got more out of this exhibition than I did from the recent Degas show down the road earlier this year.

The only sour note was waiting 30 minutes at the café for two cups of tea. Not a terribly difficult ask, I thought, but it proved to be quite the chore. Yes, the cafe was busy, but having worked in hospitality in the past I could see there were enough staff on the floor to establish a wait of that length for such a simple order was inexcusable.

Back to the exhibition, it is on show until the end of August. If this morning’s crowd was anything to go by, this will be a very popular gig for the National Portrait Gallery.

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12 Responses to
Vanity Fair: Exhibition good, cafe bad
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bohemian 7:28 pm 11 Jun 09

Just came back from the VF exhibition. The info indeed said that it was suspended till they restarted again in 1983. The exhibition was worth every penny but I wish they have more. Didn’t check out the cafe.

ant 9:20 am 08 Jun 09

Well the next person to visit, please test the cafe and report back here! I have noticed when I amble past at lunchtime that they’re pretty busy. Didn’t even realise the cafe was there until the smell of tomato sauce wafted around the corner…

astrojax 8:31 am 08 Jun 09

while i shall be popping along to catch the exhibition to see some great photographers’ work, i also often find a lot of vf (and similar) images a bit twee and rated simply for the sitter, not the image – interesting way to view them is to ask yourself if the shot had been of fred or mary next door to you, would you really rate the image; or is it just a shot of someone famous?

i also find the cafe quite ok for service and timeliness, so add another voice for ‘perhaps an off day’…

Holden Caulfield 8:50 pm 07 Jun 09

Steady Eddie said :

I don’t think you’re right about VF ceasing publication in 1936 and restarting in 1983. I clearly remember VF on the newsagent stands during the 1960s and 1970s.

Well then the curators of the exhibition have got it wrong too. 😉

Scribble 5:28 pm 07 Jun 09

Annoying about the wait. I’ve eaten there on a few of occasions (during both busy and quiet times) and haven’t had a problem with the service. Perhaps an off day? As for them being amateurs, IIRC, one of the owners is Vanessa Broadfoot who used to run a Sitting Ducks catering, so no excuses on that score.

Steady Eddie 5:28 pm 07 Jun 09

I don’t think you’re right about VF ceasing publication in 1936 and restarting in 1983. I clearly remember VF on the newsagent stands during the 1960s and 1970s.

Pommy bastard 2:27 pm 07 Jun 09

Many thanks for the tip off, we’re just back from seeing it. An hour well spent. Hell of a crowded there today due to it being Sunday (and glory be) raining.

Didn’t bother with the cafe.

My favourite was the Robert Mitchum one, but the De Niro was also a fine portrait.

Nice to see they had a wall of shame there, with Thatcher, Reagan, Bush, and Packer etc. (Though I don’t know what Helen Mirren’s done so wrong as to be on it?)

I-filed 10:13 am 07 Jun 09

NPG got EVERYTHING right except the cafe, where they installed amateurs who have no idea. When I was there at peak time the barista deserted her post, and the queue, and went table-clearing for five full minutes … instead of stepping in, the manager stayed up the other end leisurely plating a couple of cakes …

Holden Caulfield 4:18 am 07 Jun 09

bohemian said :

Annie Leibovitz is a legend.

There’s plenty of her work on show, some great shots.

bohemian 12:41 am 07 Jun 09

Thanks for the review! I started reading VF since the late 1999s so I’ll definitely go and have a look. Annie Leibovitz is a legend.

ant 9:53 pm 06 Jun 09

Thanks for the review, we all got invites to this a few weeks back, but I’d forgotten about it. And also, thanks for the heads up on the cafe failure. Running a foodery is not rocket science! Why have it if attending it is a chore for the customers?

eyeLikeCarrots 8:53 pm 06 Jun 09

Good heads up on the ehxib.

Was it really worth calling the delay in getting a cup of tea a ‘sour note’? Why not say, “I went to get some hot cuppas and it took a while, but we still enjoyed ourselves”.

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