Where some Hollywood actresses might have made their homes a shrine to themselves, and their wardrobes a tribute to their fictional alter egos, Vivien Leigh lived a very real and cultured life on and beyond her award-winning work on stage and screen.
Her estate bears witness to a woman of great style and taste for whom a John Piper watercolour of her Buckinghamshire home, Notley Abbey, which is among the lots featured in Vivien: The Vivien Leigh Collection sale on 26 September, was as precious as a mink coat or a Cartier ring.
The actress, who was born in India, schooled in England at a convent and rose through the stage ranks through hard work, considerable beauty and pluck, developed a measured style that was neither extravagant nor frugal. She possessed taste, wit and had an unerring eye for proportion.
“She travelled on set with her favourite artworks and driving back to her home even after a performance, she would read books by torchlight. She kept her mind in tip top form,” says Hugo Vickers, a friend of Suzanne Farrington, Leigh’s only daughter from her first marriage, who wrote a Vivien Leigh biography in 1988 (Hamish Hamilton).
“Leigh went to all the good couturiers and did what most society women did at that time – she went to the best hotels, nightclubs, couturiers, restaurants and doctors. British couturier Victor Stiebel was a favourite, and he absolutely adored her. She got ‘the point’ and wore his clothes in the way he imagined. She was always beautifully dressed,” he adds of the actress who came to embody the glamour of an era.
Beautiful means different things in different times but what remains true over and above the changing tides of fashion is appropriateness, sensitivity to colours, proportions, textures and a sense of self. Leigh, who loved dress up as a young child in India, acutely understood the power of clothes and the subtle nuances of details.
At a very slender five foot three, she carried off the most extravagant and memorable gowns as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, (1940) and the most lavish of costumes (designed by Cecil Beaton) as Anna Karenina, (1948) and wore a blonde wig (included in the sale) to play the ravaged, Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire, (1949). She was closely involved in her screen and stage wardrobes and the art direction of her publicity images.
Yet in her private life she exercised stylistic discretion. In honeymoon photographs (1940) taken in California, she is snapped wearing high waisted flare trousers and a cotton blouse that reflected wartime pragmatism. “Hollywood is at her feet…She is madly in love with her husband who adores her - and is convinced he is a much greater person than herself. She is unspoiled – has many loyal friends and her only ambition is to improve as an actress,” said Cecil Beaton.
She had a love of exquisite jewellery. A beautiful bow brooch with tassels from the fine antique jeweller S.J.Phillips encapsulates Leigh’s playful femininity. There are strings of pearls, rings, clip earrings and pendants that combine amethysts, sapphires and diamonds that flattered Leigh’s famous almond green lynx-like eyes.
Amongst the lots is a Victor Stiebel rose pink embroidered bodice gala gown with a skirt that bursts outwards like blossom that dates from 1961. It dates from a pivotal point in fashion as styles shifted from the ladylike ideal of Dior to the youth-quake of the mid-sixties. It was the year that The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, based on the novel by Tennessee Williams, was released. Leigh’s character, Karen Stone, wore a wardrobe of tidy demure suits and draped dresses by Balmain. She was a good friend of the directrice of the Parisian house and her treasured knee-length mink fur coat features in the auction. As she grew older, to her untimely death aged 53, Leigh’s taste became increasingly stately.
She was an excellent host and conversationalist. At her homes in the country and in in London table ware, Vickers notes that soft furnishings and artwork were arranged in tonal harmony with Olivier and Leigh’s large collection of Georgian satin wood furniture. One can imagine her socialising at home with her charm bracelet jingling and bell-like laugh. She frequently was the last to bed and the first to rise and she valued her friendships as true treasures.