Vivien Leigh in the Theatre & Performance Galleries

December 20, 2013

Earlier this year, the V&A acquired the Vivien Leigh archive. This has enabled us to display some of the unique objects from this collection in the Museum’s Theatre & Performance Galleries (103 – 106).

Vivien Leigh. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Vivien Leigh (1913 – 1967) is one of the most celebrated actors of the 20th century. Born in India and educated in Europe, Leigh trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and made her stage debut in 1935. In 1939, Leigh won the role of Scarlett O’Hara in the highly anticipated film version of Gone with the Wind (1939). The film brought her international acclaim and an Academy Award for Best Actress.

Telegram from Norma Shearer to Vivien Leigh, 1939. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The display in the Theatre and Performance galleries highlights just a few of the 10,000 objects there are in the archive, including over 7,500 letters, telegrams and postcards. Sir Winston Churchill was an admirer of Leigh and especially of the film That Hamilton Woman (1941), in which Leigh played Emma Hamilton opposite Laurence Olivier as Lord Nelson.

Vivien Leigh on the film set of That Hamilton Woman (1941). © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Letter from Sir Winston Churchill to Vivien Leigh, 1951. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier married in 1940 and became the most famous acting couple of the 40s and 50s, appearing together on film and stage. Their Old Vic Company tour of Australia in 1948 was greeted with great enthusiasm, and the couple were treated like visiting royalty. In 1951 they appeared together as Caesar and Cleopatra and Antony and Cleopatra on alternative nights at the St. James’s Theatre. In 1943 the couple bought Notley Abbey in Buckinghamshire where they entertained a wide circle of friends and family throughout the 1950s. The visitors’ book on display, records the regular guests that included Terrence Rattigan, Michael Redgrave, John Gielgud, Katharine Hepburn, Rex Harrison, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and Judy Garland.

Notley Abbey Visitors’ Book. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Leigh’s portrayal of faded Southern belle Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire is widely regarded as her finest stage performance. It was a risky choice because of the play’s themes about mental illness, rape and homosexuality. This caused controversy and resulted in a number of cuts demanded by the Lord Chamberlain’s office. Leigh’s hand-written notes describe her approach to the role and her commitment to the art of stage acting: ‘When I said the way I look – I meant right not good’. Leigh recreated her performance in the 1951 film version directed by Elia Kazan for which she won her second Academy Award for Best Actress.

Vivien Leigh as Blanche DuBois in the stage version of A Streetcar Named Desire (1949). © Victoria and Albert Musuem, London.

Vivien Leigh’s handwritten notes on the character of Blanche DuBois, 1950. © Victoria and Albert Musuem, London.

The display compliments other objects relating to Vivien Leigh in the Theatre & Performance galleries.

Costume worn by Vivien Leigh in the play, Duel of Angels (1958) designed by Christian Dior. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Headdress for Cleopatra in the film Caesar and Cleopatra (1945), designed by Oliver Messel. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The Theatre and Performance galleries (Rooms 103 – 106) are located on the third floor of the Museum and entry is free.

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