Vivien Leigh: under the hammer
Where could you buy a painting by Churchill, a blonde Blanche Dubois wig and Laurence Olivier’s wedding ring? They’re all lots in an auction of the silver-screen star’s most personal belongings. By Elizabeth Day
As the great actress and legendary beauty’s personal effects go on sale at Sotheby’s, Elizabeth Day looks at her life and style
‘A glamorous Hollywood star, Leigh had quintessentially English taste’
Most people have an image of Viv ien Leigh in t heir mind’s eye. They will think of her, perhaps, in one of her most famous film roles: as Scarlett O’hara in Gone
With the Wind, having her corset laced up by her slave, Mammy, clinging tightly to a bedpost with each tug on the whalebone, uttering ‘fiddle-dee-dee’ in a faultless Southern accent.
Or they will remember her as Blanche Dubois, the vulnerable heroine of A Streetcar Named Desire, a woman undone by both her beauty and her self-delusion, insisting in a fluting voice that she has always depended on ‘the kindness of strangers’, as she is carted off to the mental hospital.
Or they will think of Vivien Leigh as captured in one of the many black-and-white publicity photog raphs she posed for during her lifetime: a dazzling, wide-eyed brunette with fine features, tightly waved hair, cupid’s-bow lips and a feline gaze that always seemed to turn inwards, even when the lens was on her. They will know her as the Holly wood superstar, the great stage actress, a woman who won two Oscar sand was married for 20 years to Laurence Olivier, before dying, at the age of 53, of tuberculosis.
They might know her as the star who suffered two miscarriages and whose affairs punctuated her stormy marriage. She also struggled with bipolar disorder throughout her life. Those closest to her would witness bouts of restlessness, followed by outbursts of anger and vitriol during each manic phase, followed by a deep depression during which Leigh would not remember her actions.
On film sets, her behaviour made her a liability. During a flight to LA in 1953, she began to hallucinate and tried to jump out of the plane. Leigh was flown back to England and placed in a psychiatric hospital, where she endured electro convulsive therapy. It wasn’t long before she began drinking heavily to cope. Olivier once referred to her disease as ‘that uncannily evil monster’. The couple divorced in 1960 and she died seven years later.
But there was another, more private side to Leigh, which is only just being revealed, thanks to a forthcoming sale at Sotheby’s. The auction, which will be held in London in September, contains a number of Leigh’s personal effects, as well as a selection of her paintings, which throw new light on the actress as a woman of intelligence and taste, who read widely and furnished her homes with great care and attention.
She had a good eye, and the sale includes works by major post-war artists such as John Piper, William Nicholson and Augustus John. She also enjoyed painting for pleasure, as evidenced by her initialled canvas painting bag containing half-squeezed tubes of oil and a bottle of turpentine.
Leigh clearly cherished a domestic life, far away from the limelight. There are several well-worn items of impeccably chosen furniture as well as photographs of her and Olivier, happily mugging for the camera (one image captures both of them trying to get into one shirt at the same time; the next shows that they eventually managed it), in addition to snapshots of regular guests to the couple’s country home, Notley Abbey in Buckinghamshire. One such photograph shows David Niven jumping into the swimming pool while brandishing a bow and arrow. Niven is caught mid-air wearing a deerstalker and a nonchalant grin. Also up for sale is the blonde wig Leigh wore in Streetcar and her wedding ring from her marriage to Olivier, engraved with their names and the single word ‘Eternally’.
‘This sale shows a really different side to her,’ says Frances Christie, the Head of Modern& Post-war British Art at Sotheby’s. ‘She is the most glamorous Hollywood star possible, but I think when you see some oft heart and furniture, you
realise she had quintessentially English taste. Her houses were wallpapered in Colefax & Fowler, there were chintzes and florals and delicate glass and porcelain. She always had cut flowers and it [her house] was peppered with antiques and amazing art.’
It is a side of Leigh that she showed only her closest friends and family. Her 58-year-old grandson, Neville Farring ton, recalls visiting his grandmother as a child and raiding her drawer of stage make-up to dress up as a pirate. He also distinctly remembers the effort she would go to in order to make things beautiful.
‘We once had lunch in the garden by the lake and there was a bread basket made to look like a swan,’ he says, speaking to me over the phone from his home in West Sussex. His grandmother, who died when Neville was eight, was of ten surrounded by pets including ‘a wonderful Golden Dutch Labrador called Jason, a poodle called Sebastian and a cat called Poo Jones’. The first word that comes to mind when I ask him to describe Leigh is ‘funny’. She was also, according to his late mother, Suzanne (Leigh’s only child, from her first marriage to the barrister Leigh Holman), ‘feisty, perfectionist, sometimes tortured, outspoken, fiercely intelligent and well-read’.
Preparing the sale has been moving for both Farrington and his two younger brothers. ‘A lot of it has been emotional, yes. I don’t know how we’ll feel until we get to the auction in September but at the moment it feels quite cathartic to move on.
‘Both my mother and Vivien were only children, so everything they collected landed up in this home, Manor Farm House, in Wiltshire, where I grew up. They were hoarders and it almost became like a museum.
‘You’d open drawers and discover things you never knew existed. We found a trunk in the hall stuffed full of photographs of her old home and you could see that she lived her life as a work of art. You can see this in the way she decorated her houses, the amazing clothes and jewellery she wore, the garden. The whole thing is a living work of art.’
Home was of great importance to Vivien Leigh, after a peripatetic childhood. She was born in India, the daughter of a broker, and was sent to boarding school in England at the age of six. The family returned to Britain in 1931 and Leigh attended Rada, later gaining minor parts in West End plays. In 1932, Leigh married Holman, who was 13 years her senior, and gave birth to Suzanne the following year. But she met Olivier while appearing in a theatrical production of The Mask of Virtue in 1935; they fell in love and married in 1940, having divorced their respective partners.
After Leigh had filmed Gone With the Wind, the couple returned to London to find that her house, Durham Cottage in Chelsea, had been badly damaged by bombing. The Oliviers looked around for a suitable alternative, and bought Notley in 1944. It was a large stone abbey and was in a state of disrepair. Leigh rapidly set about making it habitable.she came to see Notley as a calming retreat from the pressures of fame and her continuing battle with bipolar disorder, which was beginning to affect her career. A particularly severe episode occurred when Leigh was in Ceylon filming Elephant Walk with Peter Finch in 1953; she had to be sedated and flown home and was replaced in the movie by Elizabeth Taylor.
Her illness also took its toll on her marriage. Her doctor, Arthur Conachy, witnessed her ‘violently verbally and physically attacking’ Olivier, and noted that, during manic phases, ‘she develops a marked increase in libido and indiscriminate sexual activity’. Leigh had a fling with Finch, and was rumoured to have conducted a f fa irs wit h co-st a rs including Marlon Brando and Rex Harrison, as well as various tradesmen.
At Notley, the couple could keep the world at bay. The surrounding countr yside was an important factor. The author
It was hard to see where Vivien Leigh ended and Blanche Dubois or Scarlett O’hara began
and journalist Gwen Robyns, a regular guest, wrote, ‘For their own bedroom, Vivien chose an L-shaped room where she could lie in bed and look across the meadows to the river Th a me… When the spring weather came she got up for a few hours each day and lay on the terrace basking in the sun and planning her future garden. Roses were to be the main theme. In the walled garden at the side of the house, with its view of the ancient dovecote that had once housed 1,200 doves, she planned her rose garden.’
Leigh’ sloveo fros es is referenced in one of the most intriguing items in the Sotheby’s sale. It is a striking 1930 soil painting of a small vase of pink, white and red roses set against a green, light-dappled background and the signature on the corner is Winston Churchill’s. It is one of the highlights of the auction and is expected to fetch £70,000 to £100,000.
‘Apparently, she met Churchill in 1936,’ says Christie, ‘and they had a friendship for over 20 years. The Oliviers went to stay at Chartwell [Churchill’s family home]. He didn’t give his paintings out willy-nilly. He gave them as state gifts, for instance to Eisenhower or Truman, and then the more intimate pictures, he gave to friends and family. Flower pictures for him were very personal and reserved for the people who were particularly close to him, such as his beloved youngest daughter, Mary, so this suggests they were very close.’
The placement of the painting in Leigh’s home would also bear this out: she hung it in her bedroom so that it was the first thing she saw when she woke up. There is no suggestion that there was ever any romance between the two, although Churchill, like many men, was a fer vent admirer of her beauty and is once said to have remarked of Leigh, ‘By jove, she’s a clinker.’
Also among the items for sale is a signed copy of Churchill’ s published essay Painting as a Pastime, in which he explored the way painting quietened the mind and saved him from exhaustion. Both Leigh and Olivier were said to be influenced by the essay and she took up painting in earnest, of ten setting up an easel in the garden at Notley. A naive Italian landscape painted by her is also up for sale.
‘I think there was this mutual respect between them,’ says Farring ton. ‘I wonder if there was also an understanding of how to cope with deeper turbulence [Churchill referred to his repeated bouts of depression as his ‘black dog’] and the need for mental resilience.’
One of Leigh’s other male admirers was Kenneth Clark, the broadcaster and art historian whose pioneering 1969 television series, Civilisation, made him a household name. The two became friendly in 1942 when Leigh was appearing at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, in a revival of George Bernard Shaw’s The Doctor’ s Dilemma. Clark, who was then director of the National Gallery, used to walk around the corner to have tea with Leigh in her dressing room. ‘At first I went because I enjoyed looking at her,’ Clark later said. ‘But very soon I went because I enjoyed her company and was fascinated by her character. She was not only intelligent, she had style.’
When experts from Sotheby’s were going through Leigh’s possessions, they stumbled across a leaflet advertising one of Clark’ s Civilisation lectures‘ and he’d signed it for her ,’ says Christie. ‘And that’s when we thought, “Right, there is a connection.” One of the most interesting things for me is that they clearly talked about great art and artists and that’s not what every Hollywood person necessarily wants to do.’
Christie sees Clark’s influence ever y where: in the fluid, captivating pencil drawing Augustus John did of Leigh and in a pair of stork paintings by William Nicholson. Both were artists championed by Clark.
It is t he fate of many beaut if ul women not to be taken seriously. Leigh was no exception: she spent much of her career chafing against the assumption that Olivier, because he was a man, was indubitably ‘a great actor’, while she was always relegated to being ‘a great beauty’, despite having won two Best Actress Academy Awards (for Gone With the Wind and A Street car Named Desire) and regularly turning down lucrative film deals in order to appear on stage.
As a result, Leigh was constantly curious about the world and keen to educate herself. She devoured Dickens on train journeys and carried a torch so that she could read in the back of the car in the dark.
Indeed, one of the things that most struck Farrington when he was sorting through Leigh’ spos sessions washer love of books. She had an extensive library ,‘ and when we looked through it there was an incredible range of books. Books about whatever film or stage part she was taking on at the time; books about furniture, art, silverware; quite a few in French; and many of them had messages and signatures from people like George Bernard Shaw or Arthur Rackham or Max Beerbohm or DH Lawrence.’
All of this points to the rich inner life of a highly cultured woman. And perhaps this is partly what gave her performances such depth. In many respects, Leigh was modern before her time. She wanted to in habit her roles and to research them fully, so that by the final frame, it was hard to see where Vivien Leigh ended and Blanche Dubois or Scarlett O’hara began. She once said that, ‘Acting is life, to me, and should be.’
But she had another life, too: one that consisted of beautiful rooms and books and art and a home where she felt able to be herself, away from the unforgiving limelight. As her grandson says, p er hapsVivi en Leigh’ s greatest worko far tin thee nd was the way she lived her own life.
Above Leigh, with husband Laurence Olivier, 1947. Right
John Piper Notley Abbey Pen, black ink and watercolour on paper. Estimated to sell at: £8,000 to £12,000
Sir Winston Churchill Roses in a Glass Vase Oil on canvas board. Estimate: £70,000 to £100,000
Film script Presented to Leigh by the cast. Estimate: £2,500 to £3,500
Augustus John Portrait head of Vivien Leigh Red chalk on paper. Estimate: £5,000 to £7,0000
William Nicholson A Pair of Birds Verre eglomisé. Estimate: £10,000 to £15,000
Gold wedding ring Inscribed ‘Laurence Olivier Vivien Eternally’. Estimate: £400 to £600
Gone With the WindFor her performance as Scarlett O’hara, Leigh won the Best Actress Oscar in 1940A Streetcar Named DesirePlaying Blanche Dubois won Leigh her second Best Actress Oscar in 1952