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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Five items from Sotheby's Vivien Leigh auction that provide a snapshot into her life 

The Oscar-winning actress was an avid collector of art, furniture, jewellery and books

Courtesy Sotheby’s Cecil Beaton Studio Archive
Courtesy Sotheby’s Cecil Beaton Studio Archive

Sotheby’s London has announced that it will be offering 250 items from Vivien Leigh’s private estate in a sale at the auction house’s New Bond Street premises on September 26. An ongoing preview exhibition is now open until August 11. The actress, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind, was a passionate collector of art, furniture, jewellery and books. We take a closer look at five lots that provide insight into the life of the famed British star and her husband, Laurence Olivier.

Courtesy Sotheby's
Copy of Vivien Leigh's Gone With the Wind, with a poem inscribed by author Margaret Mitchell. Courtesy Sotheby's

Leigh's personal copy of Gone With the Wind

Estimated to fetch: £5,000 to £7,000 (up to Dh33,200)

When Margaret Mitchell gave a personal copy of her Civil War tome to Leigh, who played protagonist Scarlett O’Hara in the film adaptation, the author inscribed the book with a poem addressed to the actress. It reads: “To Vivien Leigh / Life’s pattern pricked with a scarlet thread / Where once we were with a gray / To remind us all how we played our parts / In the shock of an epic day.” Leigh was known to be an avid reader, with Harry Dalmeny, chairman of Sotheby’s UK, describing her as a “book worm, who was the intellectual equal of the literati, artists and aesthetes she counted among her coterie”. Also inscribed in Leigh’s copy of the book are the words: “This, the first two-volume edition of Gone With the Wind, issued December 1, 1939, in appreciation of Margaret Mitchell’s magnificent work in commemorating the life and times of the Old South, is limited to one thousand copies, of which this is copy No. 36.”

Courtesy Sotheby's
Inscribed gold ring gifted to Vivien Leigh by her husband Laurence Olivier. Courtesy Sotheby's

Gold ring

Estimated to fetch: £400 to £600 (up to Dh2,800)

Inscribed with the words “Laurence Olivier Vivien Eternally”, this gold ring represents the passionate and ultimately tumultuous romance that Leigh shared with Olivier, who was her second husband. The two met when they were both married to other people, but, reportedly, Leigh had predicted even before she met the actor: “That’s the man I’m going to marry.” Marry they did, in 1940, at a ceremony attended only by actor Ronald Colman and his wife, actress Katharine Hepburn, and writer Garson Kanin. Leigh and Olivier were also dining companions of Winston Churchill, who once said of Leigh: “By Jove, she’s a clinker.” Leigh’s mental health, including an all-consuming bipolar disorder, caused the couple to fall out, but they are forever remembered as Britain’s golden couple.

Courtesy Sotheby's
Painting of Notley Abbey, Vivien Leigh's country home, by artist John Piper. Courtesy Sotheby's

Notley Abbey painting

Estimated to fetch: £8,000 to £12,000 (up to Dh56,800)

Leigh and Olivier’s country home, Notley Abbey in Buckinghamshire county, dates from the Middle Ages, and the couple bought it in 1944. Initially, Leigh was not taken with the grandiose property, but she enlisted the help of interior decorators and gradually converted it into the couple’s weekend retreat, where they entertained lavishly. Guests included David Niven, Orson Welles, Rex Harrison, Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn. In his autobiography, Olivier’s son from his first marriage, Tarquin, describes a summer he spent with his father and Leigh at Notley Abbey: “A summer image is of Vivien in a cloud of butterflies, picking flowers. In the pantry she chose an elegant white vase, her varnished nails glinting as she darted the flowers into position. ‘There,’ she said, satisfied. ‘Almost as fun as picking them’.’” This undated painting of Notley, in pen, black ink and watercolour, is by John Piper, a British painter and designer of stained-glass windows. The painting will be offered for sale together with a Christmas card in which the couple used Piper’s portrayal of their country retreat.

Courtesy Sotheby's
Unfinished drawing of Vivien Leigh by Augustus John. Courtesy Sotheby's

Portrait by Augustus John

Estimated to fetch: £5,000 to £7,000 (up to Dh33,200)

Leigh was a patron of the arts and bought paintings and sculptures on her many travels, some of which she would carry with her to decorate her hotel suites and dressing rooms when she was filming. Considered one of the most beautiful women of her time, she was also the subject of portraits and photographs by the leading artists of the day. This drawing (below), done in red chalk, was commissioned by her husband in 1942. However, a jealous Olivier feared that Augustus John had become too infatuated with Leigh, and the portrait was subsequently left incomplete.

Courtesy Sotheby's
Courtesy Sotheby's

Dressing table

Estimated to fetch: £600 to £900 (up to Dh4,250)

A passionate interior decorator herself, Leigh owned a varied selection of furniture, silverware, glassware, porcelain and other objets d’art. She displayed these in Notley Abbey and Durham Cottage, her city home in Chelsea, London. A selection of Leigh’s home decor is up for auction through Sotheby’s, including this cream and blue panelled dressing table in Louis XV manner, from the 19th century. “Vivien approached the decoration of her homes as if she were designing a set,” says Dalmeny, “incorporating influences and inspiration from a life spent on screen and on stage. These houses were an extension of the theatrical space, with the medieval Notley Abbey looking positively Shakespearean.”