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A Shared Passion for Painting: Vivien Leigh and Winston Churchill

One of the star lots in Sotheby’s sale of Vivien Leigh’s personal collection, on 26 September in London, is Roses in a Glass Vase by Winston Churchill. The painting reveals the little-known story of the deep and long-lasting friendship between the Prime Minister and the legendary star of Gone with the Wind.

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SIR WINSTON CHURCHILL, ROSES IN A GLASS VASE. ESTIMATE £70,000–100,000.

After lunch with Churchill in August 1951 at Chartwell, his beloved home in Kent, Vivien went on a tour of the grounds and in his studio, admired the painting hanging amongst many others on the wall. He sent it to her only a few weeks later: 'The arrival of your lovely picture was the greatest excitement. I wish I could tell you how truly thrilled I am to have it and how wonderfully kind I think it is of you to have had it so beautifully framed' (Vivien Leigh, letter to Sir Winston Churchill, 21st September 1951, CHUR 2/174, The Churchill Archives, Churchill College, Cambridge). The painting depicts roses grown in his cherished garden which he had redesigned himself in the early 1920s when he acquired the property. Although best known for his landscape paintings, Churchill was also a master of the still life genre, and his flower paintings were given only to those dearest to him, including his youngest daughter Mary. Vivien was a passionate collector and patron, and as she travelled the world she took her favourite paintings with her to adorn the walls of her hotel and theatre dressing rooms. Leigh treasured Churchill’s gift so greatly that the work hung on the wall opposite her bed.

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VIVIEN LEIGH, ITALIAN LANDSCAPE. ESTIMATE £200–300.

Churchill was not the only painter in this friendship however as revealed by further lots in Leigh’s collection. In 1950, a year before she received Roses in a Glass Vase, Churchill gave Leigh an inscribed copy of his book, ‘Painting as a Pastime’, a meditation on painting that espouses the therapeutic benefits of making art. The gift clearly inspired Leigh to paint, as demonstrated by one of Vivien’s own works included in the sale, a delightful Italian landscape, alongside her canvas artist's bag containing a wooden box with oil paints and a travelling folding easel.

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WINSTON CHURCHILL IN HIS STUDIO AT CHARTWELL, WITH ROSES IN A GLASS VASE HANGING ON THE WALL BESIDE HIM.

Leigh and Churchill were first introduced by British film producer Alexander Korda on the set of the film Fire Over England in 1936. This was a start of a friendship that would last for 30 years, until the great man’s death in 1965. Churchill was a great fan of cinema and of Vivien Leigh’s work in particular. On the release of Gone with the Wind in 1940, Churchill stayed up until 2am watching the film. When Lady Hamilton was released the following year, it became Churchill’s all-time favourite film, frequently viewed at his own private cinema at Chartwell. He even had it shown on board HMS Prince of Wales when he crossed the Atlantic to meet President Roosevelt in the middle of the war, and sent a copy to Stalin.

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VIVIEN LEIGH’S ITALIAN LANDSCAPE DISPLAYED ON HER TRAVELLING FOLDING EASEL ON VIEW AT SOTHEBY’S HIGHLIGHTS EXHIBITION, OPEN UNTIL 11 AUGUST.

Vivien’s friendship with Churchill ran deeper than many people knew, demonstrated by a letter included in the sale dated 18 July 1957 in which Churchill promises to donate money to St James’s Theatre, which Vivien was trying to save at the time. She had made a staunch defence against the theatre's demolition in the House of Lords a week earlier and was promptly escorted out. Though Churchill was unable to publicly support Vivien, in his letter he offers to donate £500 to the cause.

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