Vivien Leigh archive acquired by the V&A

By Sarah Jackson | 14 August 2013

The archive of Vivien Leigh, one of Britain’s greatest actresses of stage and screen, has been acquired by the V&A in the centenary year of her birth.

Volume of press cuttings about Vivien Leigh’s role in Gone With The Wind, 1940
Volume of press cuttings about Vivien Leigh’s role in Gone With The Wind, 1940© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The archive contains many never-before-seen objects, including love letters between Leigh and Laurence Olivier, to whom the actress behind Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind and Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire was married from 1940 until 1960.

A remarkable collection of letters from distinguished figures of the 20th century, including Winston Churchill, Graham Greene and Noël Coward, also figure.

The archive, acquired from Leigh’s grandchildren through Robert Holden Ltd, is an extraordinary insight into the actress’ career and personal life and the theatrical world of the mid-20th century as a whole.

As well as her personal diary, begun as a 16-year-old and maintained until her death in 1967, the archive contains more than 200 letters, telegrams, photographs, newspaper clippings and postcards sent by Leigh and Oliver between 1938 and 1967.

More than 7,500 personal letters addressed to both Leigh and Olivier are included, from colleagues such as TS Eliot, Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe, as well as politicians. Even Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, was a correspondent.

It is hoped that the archive will bring fresh new insight into the actress’ life. Although it had previously been used by some researchers and biographers, this is the first time it has been made available to the public.

Keith Lodwick, Curator at the V&A said: “Although she had a short life, she had a long and varied career. She always stretched herself and was much more versatile than people give her credit for”.

Her dedication to her craft has been recorded in the archive; pages of handwritten notes for her role as Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire reveals how deep her understanding of the source material was in her analyses of her character and the play’s themes.

In a letter to the director Elia Kazan as Leigh prepared for the role, she also stated: “You do know that when I said over the phone I'm worried about the way I'll look, I didn't mean good I meant right”.

Also included are large format stills from Gone with the Wind and Romeo and Juliet (a stage production for Broadway with Olivier) never previously publicly displayed. Leigh also took her own photographs whilst on tour in the USA, Australia, New Zealand and the UK, which are preserved as a huge collection of stereoscopic transparencies.

Mainly showing herself and her friends, the colour images provide a vibrant and unique glimpse of her personal life and behind the scenes in the venues she performed in.

This extensive assemblage reveals Leigh’s social world within the theatre and provides an intriguing glimpse behind the scenes of some of her productions.

Once cataloguing is complete, the archive will be made available for research. Digital records will be available on Search the Collections on the V&A website.

With this wealth of new material, it is hoped that the V&A will be able to reposition Leigh as a serious performer in her own right and bring her out of the shadow of Olivier, Scarlett and Blanche.
  • A changing selection of material from the archive will go on display in the V&A’s Theatre and Performance Galleries from autumn 2013. Writer Jayne Sheridan will recount Leigh’s story of ambition of beauty at a free lunchtime lecture, Vivien Leigh: Role Model or Victim Figure, on November 13 at the museum.
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