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Vivien Leigh: Public Faces, Private Lives

It’s not amid a beautiful National Trust garden in Sussex that you expect to find a V&A Museum exhibition about a Hollywood film star but it turns out Nymans has a connection to silver screen darling Vivien Leigh. It was once the home of Oliver Messel – friend and favoured costume and set designer to the actress and it’s now hosting Vivien Leigh: Public Faces, Private Lives until 4 Sept.

Nymans ruins and topiary - credit National Trust Images-2

The distinctive score to Gone with the Wind – Leigh’s most famous movie – was playing as I climbed the stairs in the non-ruined part of the old Nymans house to learn more about the screen icon.

Born in India but educated in England, Vivien picked up her father’s love of drama and became an overnight success after her West End debut in a supporting role. ‘A star is born’ proclaimed the papers the next morning.

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Messel’s costume sketch and the results – Leigh as Cleopatra

There are a couple of costumes in the exhibition and also some Blue Peter style creations made by Messel during wartime shortages – a headdress for Cleopatra that incorporates paper mache and leather and Titania’s crown for A Midsummer Night’s Dream which, on closer inspection, it seems Messel created partly from sweet wrappers. He had been producing unglamorous camouflage netting when he got a letter from Leigh insisting he create the costumes for a double stage production of Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra and Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra.

A Midsummer Nights Dream; by William Shakespeare Old Vic 1937. With Vivien Leigh as Titania. Photographer : J.W. Debenham

Vivien Leigh as Titania, Old Vic 1937

For most of the exhibition however you are looking at photographs and letters under glass – the excitement coming from the fact they’re from some very big names – Winston Churchill and the Queen Mum, for instance, sent fan mail and thank you notes.

Of course, Leigh was married for 20 years to Laurence Olivier (they left their respective spouses for each other and debuted as newlyweds on stage in Romeo and Juliet). The golden couple were the Brangelina of their day – only bigger. Their personal appearances drew the kind of crowds then expected for royalty.

Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier in Fire Over England

They set up home in a stately pile in Buckinghamshire and there threw parties for the stars. Their visitors’ book is on display with signatures from the likes of Richard Burton, Alec Guinness and Michael Redgrave. There’s also charming a handwritten thank you letter from Bettie Davis who was using smiling emojis ahead of her time.

There are telegrams too – magnanimous congratulations from Norma Sheaver who had been hotly tipped to play Scarlett O Hara – the role Leigh famously landed, and another from Bernard Shaw telling Leigh ‘don’t be an idiot’ over a proposed line change.

Vivien Leigh Archive

Vivien Leigh with Noel Coward

I particularly enjoyed the 1949 censors’ letter concerning the staging of A Street Car Named Desire which insisted ‘there must be no suggestive business accompanying undressing’. In fact, the film version, also starring Leigh, only got its original sexy jazz soundtrack reinstated in the directors’ cut of 1991! A note in the exhibition from its writer Tenesse Williams tells Leigh she was the Blanche he ‘always dreamed of’.

One of the highlights is a love letter Olivier sent to Leigh while she was filming Gone with the Wind, with a sketch of them on a proposed holiday in Brighton, emerging from a bathing carriage and being gawped at by a fish. The movie took six months and five directors to shoot and he tried to keep her spirits up with daily missives with jokes and cartoons.

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Gorgeous portraits from some famous photographers and covers of the likes of Time magazine show Leigh as a glamour girl. Sadly her life didn’t have a Hollywood ending. She was diagnosed as bipolar in the mid-1950s and, partly as a result of this, her marriage ended in 1960. Just seven years after that she died of TB aged 53.

A short V&A film at the end of the exhibition plays tribute to her skill. She was, among many accolades, the first British woman to win an Oscar for best actress. Not long before Leigh’s death, Judi Dench wrote in gushing gratitude to the star who had complemented her on an early performance.

Vivien Leigh Archive

Nymans, handily just off the A23, is a lovely day out in itself, combining formal gardens with extensive woodland and fantastic views. There’s plenty for kids to explore and a trail running in conjunction with the exhibition encourages them to pick up fun facts about theatre and film.

The exhibition is free but normal admission charges: £11.50 for adults, £6.20 for children apply. A deli style ticket system is in place at the exhibition for busy times, or you can book a slot ahead.

Nymans, Handcross, near Haywards Heath, West Sussex, RH17 6EB,




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