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Review: Starring Vivien Leigh at the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle

The beauty and determination of Vivien Leigh are encapsulated in an exhibition from the National Portrait Gallery

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© Clarence; Sinclair Bull / Kobal Collection Clark Gable as Rhett Butler and Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind by Clarence Sinclair Bull, collection National Portrait Gallery
Clark Gable as Rhett Butler and Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind by Clarence Sinclair Bull, collection National Portrait Gallery

An exhibition about Vivien Leigh tells about the actress’s life but also about how she was portrayed, as DAVID WHETSTONE finds out

In this age of the ‘selfie’ and instant celebrity, an exhibition at the Laing Art Gallery is a reminder of how things used to be.

It is called Starring Vivien Leigh and it features photographs and memorabilia – entertainment magazines and theatre programmes – from the National Portrait Gallery.

It is about a beautiful and successful actress whose photogenic features graced films and plays and the posters that promoted them.

Less obviously, it is also about the time in which she lived and worked, the decades around the Second World War.

This was a time when stage and screen stars seemed untouchable, their public image largely guarded and gilded, and when celebrity for celebrity’s sake was still some way down the line.

You can see it coming, though. While the photographs in the exhibition feature Vivien Leigh, it is clear that the photographers who took them were also becoming celebrities in an increasingly image-driven world.

The first photo you will see depicts Vivien Leigh in such vivid shades of red and green that it seems almost other-worldy. This startling portrait was by Madame Yevonde (1893-1975) who pioneered an innovative colour developing process called Vivex.

“Be original or die,” declared Madame Yevonde who, despite her exotic-sounding name, was born Yevonde Middleton, in England, and went on to become a suffragette as well as a champion of colour portraiture when it was regarded with suspicion.

Laurence Kerr Olivier, Baron Olivier and Vivien Leigh by Unknown photographer, 30 May 1937 © National Portrait Gallery, London A rarely seen photograph of Vivien Leigh and husband Laurence Olivier at a garden party

Several photos in the exhibition were taken by Angus McBean (1904-90) who, in the year before his death, brought out a book called Vivien: A Love Affair with the Camera.

One of his early portraits of Leigh, published in the late 1930s, is a ‘surrealised’ image of the young actress as Aurora – Beautiful Goddess of Dawn with wispy clouds swirling about her body.

McBean, son of a Welsh colliery surveyor, sold a gold watch left to him by his grandfather in order to buy photographic equipment.

After the family moved to London McBean worked in the Liberty’s department store while spending his leisure time taking photos, making masks and going to the theatre.

In 1936 he was commissioned by Ivor Novelllo to make masks for a play called The Happy Hypocrite. Novello was so impressed with McBean’s photographs that he asked him to take the production shots for the play, which starred himself and the young Vivien Leigh.

It was to McBean that Leigh turned when she needed some photos to support her determined campaign to impress Hollywood producer David O Selznick and land the part of Scarlett O’Hara in the film adaptation of Gone With The Wind, 75 years old this year.

One of the photos, showing Leigh in what she fancied to be Scarlett-like clothes and pose, features in the exhibition.

Leigh was also photographed by a young Norman Parkinson, two years after he set up his first studio in 1934, and by Cecil Beaton who immortalised her in 1944 on the film set of Caesar and Cleopatra – in which Leigh played the young queen of Egypt – wearing a costume by top designer Oliver Messel.

One of those brilliantly able to bring out the ethereal qualities of film stars was Laszlo Willinger who photographed Leigh in a glorious confection of fan formation silk to promote the film Waterloo Bridge.

This was a tear-jerker first released in 1931, with a story relating to the First World War, but remade in 1940 to capture the mood of the Second. No throwaway image, this was designed to make an impact and last – as it has done, preserved in the archives of the National Portrait Gallery.

Through the lenses of these and others the life of Vivien Leigh is delivered to us, along with glimpses of a life of greater class distinction, steam trains, elbow-length silk gloves and trilby hats. If the glamour seems heightened, you can guess that the hardship and poverty at the other end of life’s spectrum was also greater than we might be accustomed to now.

It was to the cinema, the great leveller, that people from all walks of life went for escapism.

We learn that Vivian Hartley was born on November 5, 1913 in Darjeeling, India. She was sent to England and Europe for her education and ended up at Rada (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art).

In 1935 she became an immediate sensation in the play The Mask of Virtue in which she played a prostitute called Henriette Duquesnoy. “The roar of applause when the final curtain fell told me the miracle had happened,” she recalled. “I had arrived.”

Her performance earned her a £50,000 film deal from director and producer Alexander Korda.

In order to appear in her first film – as an uncredited schoolgirl in the comedy Things Are Looking Up – Leigh abandoned a sailing holiday to return to England, whereupon her barrister husband, Leigh Holman, remarked: “Really, if this film business is going to take you away too much, I shall be wanting you to stop it.”

Young Vivian Holman (née Hartley) had already changed her name to Vivien Leigh. Soon the marriage would be gone too.

On the set of Fire Over England, in 1937, she fell for fellow cast member Laurence Olivier. The film, the first of three in which the couple would appear together, was about the conquest of the Spanish Armada and it starred South Shields-born Flora Robson as Elizabeth I.

It wasn’t the plot that changed Leigh’s life.

“I don’t think I have lived quite as intensely ever since,” she would recall of her first encounter with Olivier. “I don’t remember sleeping, ever; only every precious moment that we spent together.”

The couple’s romance and marriage is a thread running through this exhibition.

The press photo of the couple leaning from the window of a train departing from London’s Liverpool Street Station was taken in 1937. The couple, in the throes of making a romantic thriller called 21 Days Together, were given time off by Korda to travel to Denmark to appear in a special stage production of Hamlet.

On their return, the couple told their respective spouses they were having an affair and set up home together. They were married in August 1940.

Accompanying a touching studio portrait by Paul Tanqueray, in which Leigh wears the wings of the Fleet Air Arm, is Leigh’s observation that the memories she cherishes most are “not of first night successes but of simple everyday things”, such as the treasured weekends snatched with her husband when he was serving in the Fleet Air Arm and she was on tour.

Having landed the part of Scarlett O’Hara, putting more than a thousand other actresses’ noses out of joint and annoying Americans who thought she should be played by one of their own, Leigh was photographed by stills photographers including Clarence Sinclair Bull.

He recalls how she kept Clark Gable waiting, causing him to remark: “I couldn’t make love to that dame now if she were the most beautiful woman in the world.”

“And then,” added Bull, “a rustle of silk, the sweet smell of lilacs and there was the most beautiful woman in the world, standing behind him, touching his shoulder, whispering like a summer breeze.

“Gable turned and looked. Leigh looked back. Slowly Rhett Butler took Scarlett O’Hara by the arm, talking and smiling as though they’d known each other all their lives.”

Sadness and depression dogged the end of Vivien Leigh’s relatively short life. Divorced from Olivier in 1960, she died of tuberculosis in 1967, aged 53.

The last photos in the exhibition, press snaps showing Leigh with John Gielgud, Ringo Starr and others, seem far removed from the meticulously enhanced glamour of the pre-war studios.

Starring Vivien Leigh is at the Laing Art Gallery until February 15, twinned with Jonathan Yeo Portraits. There is an admission charge for both of £5 (£4.50 concessions, under 12s free).

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