Vivien Leigh: A temptress named desire

Portrait of Vivien Leigh by Sasha, 1935.  Picture: Victoria and Albert Museum, London/V.L. Archive

Portrait of Vivien Leigh by Sasha, 1935. Picture: Victoria and Albert Museum, London/V.L. Archive

  • She was an icon of stage and screen. Now Vivien Leigh is coming to Yorkshire. Sarah Freeman reports.
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In the foyer at Treasurer’s House a group of volunteers are chatting about the films they watched over the weekend. One spent a few happy hours with Gone with the Wind.

Another watched Streetcar Named Desire. Twice. “We’ve all become a little bit obsessed,” says Clare Alton-Fletcher, visitor experience manager at the York property, which is gearing up to host a new exhibition dedicated to Vivien Leigh. “We’ve all been watching her films and there is a real sense of excitement that after months of anticipation and planning, we will finally get to feature a little piece of her life in York.”

Vivien Leigh swimming in George Cukor's pool, Hollywood, 1960.  Picture: Victoria and Albert'Museum, London/V.L. Archive

Vivien Leigh swimming in George Cukor's pool, Hollywood, 1960. Picture: Victoria and Albert'Museum, London/V.L. Archive

Direct from London’s V&A, Vivien Leigh: Public Faces, Private Lives looks at both the Hollywood career and home life of the actress who was Britain’s first international film star.

The exhibition has been curated from Leigh’s personal archive, which was donated to the V&A by her family in 2013. One of the largest private collections ever received by the museum, over the last 18 months staff have been sorting through the various letters, scripts and photographs which document not just Leigh’s life, but also her marriage to Laurence Olivier.

“It’s huge,” says V&A curator Keith Lodwick, who has spent months logging each and every item. “There are 10,000 individual items, including 7,500 letters which made selecting items for this exhibition incredibly difficult because there are so many quality objects. Take her letters, throughout her life, Leigh corresponded with the likes of TS Eliot, Winston Churchill and Edith Sitwell. There is also a lovely letter from the Queen Mother saying how much she had enjoyed one particular performance and there is another little piece of fan mail from a certain Judi Dench. With the exhibition being staged in York, we had to include that.”

This will be the first time many of the objects have been on public display and while Treasurer’s House might not be a traditional gallery space, its history and lavishly decorated rooms should complement the Leigh collection.

“The property was originally owned by Edwardian businessman Frank Green,” says Clare, who when we speak is awaiting the arrival of the V&A trucks containing the collection. “Over his life he amassed a remarkable collection of antiques, furniture and paintings, but he was also a man who loved to entertain and regularly had parties where the guests included the likes of actresses Lily Langtry and Ellen Terry.

“Likewise Leigh and Olivier were known for throwing lavish parties at their home in Notley Abbey in Buckinghamshire and it somehow feels fitting that we will be the first venue to show this exhibition.”

Items which will go on display at Treasurer’s House later this month include some of the couple’s private love letters, a selection of photographs of them at home, as well as the Notley Abbey visitors book, which includes the autographs of Noel Coward, Orson Wells and Katharine Hepburn.

“I think that is one of my favourite pieces, honestly, it’s like a who’s who of acting,” says Keith. “We have had the pages digitised so that visitors will be able to turn the virtual pages of the book. The whole idea of the exhibition is to bring Vivien Leigh to life and we have some wonderful 3D slides which we will be projecting into the exhibition space, so that visitors will be able to get up close to the actress who for so many years dominated the stage and screen.”

Inevitably, one focus of the exhibition will be dedicated to the cinema classic Gone with the Wind. Released in 1939, it was Leigh’s portrayal of the fiery Scarlett O’Hara that propelled her into international stardom. Original photographs of Leigh playing Scarlett taken by Hollywood photographer Laszlo Willinger will be on display, alongside film posters and scrapbooks.

In another room visitors will able to see the red Christian Dior gown that Leigh wore in Duel of Angels and the headdress from a 1937 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which she played Titania.

“Although Vivien Leigh was perhaps best-known for her film roles, she actually starred in more stage plays and that’s something we were keen to reflect,” adds Clare. “During her career she played a huge range of roles and is probably one of the few actresses to have played Ophelia, Cleopatra, Juliet and Lady Macbeth.

“She took the theatre very seriously. A Streetcar Named Desire, which would later see her win an Oscar for the film version, is widely regarded as her best stage performance and her annotated notes about dealing with the controversial themes of mental illness, homosexuality and rape are a fascinating insight into how she approached the role of Blanche DuBois.

“Written by Tennessee Williams, he called her ‘the Blanche I had always dreamed of’ and she certainly has an enduring appeal and today still remains the great luminaries of stage and screen.”

• Vivien Leigh: Public Faces, Private Lives will be on display at Treasurer’s House, York, from September 19 to December 20, telephone 01904 624247, www.nationaltrust.org.uk/treasurershouse; on October 4, York City Screen will be showing A Streetcar Named Desire. For tickets call 0871 902 5726 or online at www.picturehouses.com.

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