“We’re all guilty of confusing our favourite actresses with the heroines they portray,” says Harry Dalmeny, UK chairman of Sotheby’s, “but behind the guise of Vivien Leigh, the most glamorous and talked-about woman of her age, we find a fine-art collector, patron, even a bookworm, who was the intellectual equal of the literati, artists and aesthetes she counted among her coterie.”
Evidence of these hidden depths will be uncovered at the Collection of Vivien Leigh auction that will take place at Sotheby’s New Bond Street on September 26 (previews from September 22) and feature more than 300 lots steeped in the history of her professional life – which encompassed roles such as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire (her wig from the film, inscribed with her name, is expected to sell for £400-£600) – and personal life (including her tempestuous marriage to Laurence Olivier).
Lot 201, for example, is a copy of The Works of William Shakespeare (estimate £5,000-£7,000) that was published in 1893-95. It contains 38 of its original 40 volumes, and includes Laurence Olivier’s working copy of Hamlet, embellished with annotations and edits by the great man himself. The couple’s joint theatrical heritage, meanwhile, is hinted at in Lot 168, the “Prince of Wales” model theatre, made around 1840 and expected to realise £5,000-£7,000. Thought to have been bought by Olivier around 1945, it is made from mahogany and mirrors and features a proscenium that comes with two painted oak backdrops and a selection of printed card scenery for Richard III.
The more personal items include an extensive painting collection that counts among its number a charming watercolour (£1,000-£1,500) by Roger Furse of Leigh sitting with her cat Tissy and reading a book. There are also some of the actress’s gowns – a pink satin full-length evening dress (£200-£300) designed by Victor Stiebel, which features cap sleeves and a brocade and lace bodice; a blue woven-silk evening shawl (£50-£100) designed by Pierre Balmain – as well as selections from her jewellery collection, including a large mid-19th-century diamond bow brooch (£25,000-£35,000) and a gold ring (£400-£600) inscribed “Laurence Olivier Vivien Eternally”.
Leigh’s greatest triumph is reflected in Lot 28, a book of photographic stills from Gone with the Wind (£3,000-£5,000) that dates from around 1939, and the film also crops up in various other lots, most notably in the screenplay and first edition of the book that bear an inscription by the author Margaret Mitchell and are expected to sell for a combined £15,000-£22,000. Literature from Leigh’s earlier days, meanwhile, appears in the form of her teenage notebook from 1928-31 (£100-£150), which includes works of her own composition as well as transcriptions of her favourite poetry and prose by the likes Rupert Brooke and WB Yeats.