Vivien Leigh exhibition at Nymans 2016

This exhibition was held in 2016 and is no longer on show. Vivien Leigh: Public Faces, Private Lives
1 June - 4 September, 11am - 4pm
A new exhibition that explores the life of one of Britain’s most iconic and beautiful actresses, Vivien Leigh, is unveiled on Wednesday 1 June in the family home of her favourite costume and set designer, Oliver Messel.

Vivien Leigh and Claude Rains in Caesar and Cleopatra (1945)

The exhibition includes over 100 pieces from Leigh’s personal archive - on loan from the Victoria and Albert Museum, London  - from costumes and sketches to photographs and scripts.

Amongst the exhibits are objects that reveal more about the private world of this glamorous figure. You'll find love letters from husband Laurence Olivier, Leigh’s own diaries, and 3D stereoscopic slides that offer ‘behind the scenes’ glimpses into the life of Britain’s first international film star.

Cleopatra on the silver screen

A section of the exhibition explores Leigh and Messel’s creative collaboration, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1937) and George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra³ (1945).

The film put on hold Messel's wartime work as a camouflage expert, where he turned his talents to transforming pillboxes into haystacks, castles and even roadside cafés. 

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.'

Vivien Leigh as Cleopatra in the 1945 film, Caesar and Cleopatra
Actress Vivien Leigh in Cleopatra headdress

One of the exhibition's highlights 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 masterclass on screen but is created mainly from wax, wire, glass, beads and leather.This is shown alongside Leigh’s Cleopatra costume, together with Messel’s original costume sketch and stills from the film, both of which have never previously be displayed. 

International stardom and celebrity friends

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, the celebrated couple were greeted on tours with the enthusiasm generally reserved for royalty. 

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 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 three hundred times and is one of my most treasured possessions.'  

Theatrical costumes and 3D images

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).

Vivien Leigh as Titania in A Midsummer Nights Dream, Old Vic Theatre, London 1937
Vivien Leigh dressed as Titania in a Midsummer Night's Dream

Stereoscopic colour photographs from Vivien Leigh’s private collection reveal a personal insight into her world of film, fashion, and theatre. You can experience these in a 3D slide show, just as they were intended to be seen, bringing this famous actress vividly to life. 

Vivien Leigh with director Peter Brook, Notley Abbey, 1954
Vivien Leigh with director Peter Brook, Notley Abbey, 1954

Vivien Leigh: Public Faces, Private Lives runs from 1 June to 4 September, 11am - 4pm. The exhibition is free but normal admission charges to the property apply. Entry to the exhibition is by timed ticket. Timed tickets are available on the day and cannot be pre-booked. The gallery is located upstairs in the house and is accessible by stairs. 

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