A new exhibition that explores the life of Vivien Leigh, one of Britain’s most iconic actresses has opened in the family home of her favourite costume designer, Oliver Messel.
Vivien Leigh: Public Faces, Private Lives includes items by designer Messel, and is set in the romantic interior of his former home – the National Trust’s Nymans in West Sussex. The exhibition includes over 100 pieces on loan from the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Vivien Leigh archive, from costumes and sketches to photographs and scripts.
Vivien Leigh gained international fame with her role as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, for which she was the first British actress to win an Academy Award. Married to actor Laurence Olivier from 1940 to 1960, Leigh co-starred with her husband in many plays and films and the pair often played iconic lovers including Anthony and Cleopatra, Nelson and Lady Hamilton, and Romeo and Juliet.
This is the first exhibition created to showcase both the professional and personal life of Leigh, who was immortalised in the film Gone with the Wind (1939). Amongst the exhibits on show are intimate objects that reveal more about the Leigh’s private world, such as letters from husband Olivier, her own diaries, and 3D stereoscopic slides that offer behind-the-scenes glimpses into the life of Britain’s first international film star.
Keith Lodwick, V&A curator of the exhibition, said: “I am delighted that the exhibition is being hosted by Nymans, the Messel family home. Leigh and Messel were great friends and their creative work resulted in two of Leigh’s most celebrated roles – Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and in Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra. Vivien Leigh remains an enduring icon of stage and screen and the objects on display provide a fascinating insight into her personal life and career.”
A 1943 letter from Leigh to the designer, recently discovered by Messel’s nephew in a family archive, shows the bond between them: “I have of course told Pascal [Gabriel Pascal, director of Caesar and Cleopatra] that nobody in the world must do the costumes except you.”
One of the highlights of the exhibition is the magnificent headdress Messel made for Leigh’s performance as Cleopatra in the film. Messel was considered the greatest theatre designer in the world but the strict wartime rationing of materials tested his creative skills to the limits. The result is a masterpiece on screen, but is created mainly from wax, wire, glass, beads and leather.
The film put on hold Messel’s wartime work as a camouflage expert, where he turned his talents to transforming pillboxes into haystacks, castles, even roadside cafes, as well as more bizarre commissions.
The headdress is on show alongside Leigh’s Cleopatra costume, together with Messel’s original costume sketch and stills from the film, both of which have never previously been displayed.
“We’re really excited that our visitors will be able to see this new exhibition at Nymans and learn about the wonderful connection between Vivien Leigh and Oliver Messel,” explains exhibition and programme officer Nikki Caxton. “The Gothic ruins here provide the perfect dramatic backdrop and invoke a real sense of theatre.
“Messel was brought up in a very artistic family and he and his siblings enjoyed a carefree existence at Nymans. It became a playground for fantasy and dressing up, where the children commissioned beautiful costumes and put on grand productions.
“It’s no surprise that Messel went on to develop his artistic talents, and he continued to return to Nymans as his career took off, even creating a studio space in the grounds where he’d work on early designs, in a place that inspired him.”
Also on show are costume sketches by designer Cecil Beaton, and letters from celebrities of the day including Bette Davis, Tennessee Williams, Sir Winston Churchill and the Queen Mother.
Amongst the correspondence to Leigh is a letter from Judi Dench at the start of her own career: “It [a letter from Leigh] has been read and re-read at least 300 times and is one of my most treasured possessions.” In contrast, private love letters sent to Vivien Leigh by Laurence Olivier can also be seen.
Theatre costumes worn by Vivien Leigh are a particular focus, including a stunning red Christian Dior gown from Duel of Angels (1958) and the headdress from her role as Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1937).
In Vivien Leigh’s private collection are stereoscopic colour photographs, which give a detailed insight into many aspects of her career and activities, including film, fashion, theatre and working with Laurence Olivier. Visitors will be able to view some of these in a 3D slide show, as they were intended to be seen, which brings the actress vividly to life.