Exhibition celebrates Vivien Leigh

Published : 02 Oct 2015 Last update : 28 Oct 2015

The life of one of Britain’s most celebrated actresses, Vivien Leigh, goes under the spotlight in an exhibition of items from her personal collection at Treasurer’s House in York, the former home of Frank Green, a passionate advocate of the arts. Letters, scrapbooks, photographs, film scripts and costume sketches that belonged to the Gone with the Wind star, many of which have never been on public display before, will be included alongside costumes from her time on the stage.

Artistic coup for Treasurer’s House

Vivien Leigh: Public Faces, Private Lives is the first major display of objects from the actress’ personal collection since her private archive of more than 10,000 items was acquired from her family in 2013 by the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A).

The V&A and National Trust have a long history of loaning objects from their collections to each other but this will be the first time an exhibition organised by the V&A will be shown at a property we look after.

Elegant setting fit for a star

‘We’re delighted that fans of Vivien Leigh, film and theatre will be able to see the exhibition in this unique historic house setting in York,’ says Clare Alton-Fletcher, exhibition manager at Treasurer’s House.

‘The architecture of the house adds to the theatricality and atmosphere. The Blue Drawing Room is a luscious setting with its glittering gold mirrors for ‘Becoming Scarlett’ – the section of the exhibition which looks at Leigh’s most famous role in Gone with the Wind.’

A theatre lover’s home

Frank Green, an early 20th-century businessman, often hosted actors and actresses at his home. Although Vivien Leigh never visited, earlier stars who did included Lillie Langtry and Ellen Terry who were two of Leigh’s inspirations to become an actress.

Visiting actors and actresses would perform plays when they came to stay at Treasurer’s House on a small stage in the double-height Great Hall. The grand room will be used to display the costume worn by Leigh as Cleopatra.

Behind the scenes of an icon

Vivien Leigh was equally famous for her marriage to actor Laurence Olivier and the couple were treated like theatre royalty. The exhibition explores both her glamorous public image and her private home life with Olivier.

Letters sent to Vivien Leigh from Sir Winston Churchill, Bette Davis, Tennessee Williams and the Queen Mother are among those on display, as well as one from a young Judi Dench. In contrast, private love letters sent to Leigh by Olivier can also be seen.

More exhibition highlights

Theatre costumes worn by Vivien Leigh will take pride of place including the headdress she wore as Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A scrapbook of her press cuttings for Gone with the Wind, costume sketches by designer Cecil Beaton and scripts featuring handwritten notes are also on display.

Stereoscopic colour photographs from the star’s collection give a detailed insight into her career and activities, including film, fashion, theatre and working with Olivier. Visitors will be able to see some of these in a 3D slide show, bringing the actress vividly to life.

‘Vivien Leigh has an enduring appeal,’ says Keith Lodwick, V&A curator of the exhibition. ‘The archive is a magnificent and intact record and we’re delighted that so many of its highlights can now be seen.’

Vivien Leigh: Public Faces, Private Lives is at Treasurer’s House from 19 September – 20 December 2015.

Places we look after with connections to theatre and film:

  • Chartwell, Kent – Charlie Chaplin’s visit to Winston Churchill at the prime minister’s home is recorded in the visitors’ book
  • Coleton Fishacre, Devon – the country home of the D'Oyly Carte family whose theatre company hosted Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas
  • The Hardmans’ House, Liverpool – actors and performers including Ivor Novello and Patricia Routledge visited Edward Chambré Hardman’s studio to have photographs taken
  • Plas Newydd House and Gardens, Anglesey – the exuberant 5th Marquess of Anglesey was known for his love of the theatre
  • Shaw's Corner, Hertfordshire – home to the playwright George Bernard Shaw for over 40 years
  • Smallhythe Place, Kent – bought by the renowned Victorian actress Ellen Terry
  • Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk – opened in 1819, it is the only surviving Regency playhouse in Britain

This article was first published on 17 September 2015

Portrait of Vivien Leigh by Sasha, 1935 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Pre-book your tickets 

It is advisable to pre-book your tickets for this popular exhibition. You can do this using the Buy tickets button on the events page for Treasurer's House, York. The exhibition runs until 20 December.