The Many Sides of a Star: Inside Vivien Leigh’s Private Collection

Film still from "Gone With the Wind" (1939) featuring Clark Gable as Rhett Butler (left) and Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara (right).

“I was born in one of the most romantic places in the world: Darjeeling.” –Vivien Leigh

Thanks to her timeless role as Scarlett O’Hara in one of Hollywood’s most legendary films, “Gone with the Wind,” Hollywood actress Vivien Leigh will forever be remembered as a figure of romance and glamour. But beyond her camera-ready public persona, Leigh was well-read, a lover of art, a keeper of letters, a lover of cats, a woman as conversant in theater as she was in politics – and also one who could laugh at herself.

This September, the private collection of this captivating and adored actress will be offered at Sotheby’s in London. This collection paints a portrait of a rich, multifaceted, and most of all, romantic individual. Step inside the collection below with a selection of objects and mementos that hint at Leigh’s charming and quirky personality.

The “Eternally” Ring

Both on- and off-screen, Leigh and her husband, actor Laurence Olivier, were romantic leads. The ‘Eternally’ Ring (lot 321), inscribed ‘Laurence Olivier Vivien Eternally’ was given by Olivier to Leigh. The couple was introduced after Leigh had seen Olivier on stage, when she purportedly confided in a friend, “that’s the man I’m going to marry.” Although both Leigh and Olivier were married to other people at the time (Leigh to Leigh Holman, from whom she took her name and who remained a lifelong ally, and Olivier to actress Jill Esmond), Leigh loved the idea that she and Olivier would one day follow in the footsteps of husband-and-wife acting duo, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. Of course, she and Olivier went on to outshine the original duo by quite some margin.

Lot 321: The ‘Eternally’ Ring, engraved with floral decoration and inscribed to the interior “Laurence Olivier Vivien Eternally.”

The two actors fell in love as they were cast to appear opposite one another in two separate productions: “Fire Over England” (1937), a film about the Spanish Armada, and a theater production of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” staged in the Danish castle in which “Hamlet” was originally set. Although the couple informed their spouses of their affair when they returned from Denmark, it would be several years before they were able to wed due to lengthy divorce proceedings. By the time of their nuptials they were international Hollywood stars, yet they wanted a very private and low-key affair.

Related: Additional rings from the collection

The Hepburn Wedding Goblet

The Hepburn Wedding Goblet was a gift to Leigh and Olivier by actor Katharine Hepburn upon their wedding in 1940. Hepburn and her date were two of only four guests present at the modest ceremony, which took place at a Santa Barbara ranch owned by fellow actors Ronald Coleman and Benita Hume. As Leigh and Olivier (who were driven by Hepburn to the ceremony) were running late, the municipal judge responsible for the ceremony accepted an alcoholic bribe while he waited for the couple to arrive. By the time the ceremony began, he was said to have been “absolutely potted.” Consequently, the nuptials only lasted three minutes.

Lot 39: Georg Jensen, The Hepburn Wedding Goblet. Cosmos pattern, reverse later inscribed ‘Vivien Leigh Laurence Olivier 1940 from Katharine Hepburn’.

Related: Silver tankards (lots 133 and 142); the Kronberg Castle Box (lot 8)

Pair of Throne Chairs

“I never thought of Vivien as a fabulous star. Vivien never acted as though she was.” –Costume Designer Lucinda Ballard Dietz

Although Leigh was often said to be modest about her fame, she and husband Olivier jointly purchased Notley Abbey, a dramatic Medieval abbey in Buckinghamshire. Leigh was determined to create the perfect home at Notley, and subsequently hired John Fowler of the firm Colefax and Fowler to design a bespoke wallpaper for the abbey (known as the “Notley Nots”). Many items from Leigh’s interior spaces are offered in the collection, although none quite so regal as her pair of velvet thrones.

Related: Notley Abbey by John Piper C.H. in pencil and gouache (lot 117)

“My Favourite Poems”

‘My favourite poems’ is a book of poems transcribed by a teenage Leigh, then known as Vivian Hartley. The handwritten notebook features prose by Walter de la Mare, Kipling, Tennyson, Scott, Shakespeare, and other poets. Additional objects and mementos featured in Sotheby’s auction illustrate Leigh’s commitment to literature. Later in life she developed friendships with the most eminent writers of the day, including Dame Edith Sitwell, Evelyn Waugh, and Truman Capote.

Related: In another book (lot 4), which a young Leigh has marked ‘PRIVATE’ in red, she composes her own verse as well as transcribing that of other poets.

Sir Winston Churchill, “Study of Roses”

Among Leigh’s inner circle was British statesman Sir Winston Churchill, who gifted her a number of the items featured in the collection. One of the most notable items is a modestly sized painting of roses cut from the garden at his home, known as “Chartwell.” As a sign of its significance to the actress, she hung the piece in her bedroom. Leigh’s grateful note of thanks in response to Churchill’s gift can be found in the Churchill Archive today.

The unlikely bond between Leigh and Churchill was said to have been fostered by a shared affliction: depression. Leigh confided in him that looking at this picture gave her the will to go on. Churchill recommended painting to Leigh as a respite and gave her a signed copy of his book Painting as a Pastime.

Monogrammed Art Bag

Taking Churchill’s suggestion, Leigh developed an interest in painting as a means to overcome depression, which Churchill referred to as “the black dog.” Featured in the collection is Leigh’s personal bag for painting supplies, a practical burgundy bag monogrammed “V.O.” for Vivien Olivier, as she took her husband’s name off-screen.

Lot 243: Putman, Friday Street, Henley-on-Thames, Vivien’s art bag monogrammed with the initials “V.O.”

Related: An original painting by Vivien Leigh depicting an Italian landscape (lot 242).

Ronald Carl Giles Cartoon

“She was willing to de-glamorize herself if the role called for it.” –Keith Lodwick of the V&A.

Most objects featured in the collection portray a glamorous, elegant figure. Yet some cartoons retained by Leigh suggest a person who did not take herself too seriously. Three in particular (lots 227, 228 and 235, respectively) tell the story of her determination and desire to use her public persona to defend a cause that she held dear. One such cause was leading a campaign with Olivier to protest the planned demolition of London’s historic St. James Theatre in 1957, which included the organization of street marches and even interrupting the House of Lords in session.

In David Langdon’s “Anyone know Vivien Leigh?,” the artist shows a group of military personnel reading a notification about job cuts. One of figures suggests Leigh as a hero of the people who might come to their aid.

Related: A gentle slap on the wrist from Winston Churchill for her “disorderly method” in disrupting the House of Lords (lot 229); “Heroes of our Time” by Ronald Searle (lot 234) in the British satirical newspaper “Punch;” and lots 231 & 231 by cartoonist Vicky (Victor Weisz).

Roger Furse, “Vivien Leigh Reading with Tissy”

“Once you have kept a Siamese cat you would never have any other kind. They make wonderful pets and are so intelligent they follow you around like little dogs” –Vivien Leigh

As a child at boarding school, Leigh was allowed to take cats to bed with her, and thus began her lifelong love affair with her furry companions. The actress (famously known for eyes that resembled feline features herself) favored Siamese cats for their intelligence.

Lot 175: Roger Furse, “Vivien Leigh Reading with Tissy,” watercolor, pen and ink and pencil on paper.

Known for having a calming effect on their owners, she adopted her first Siamese cat, a stray called Tissy. Her second, named New Boy, was a gift from Laurence Olivier. Her last cat, Poo Jones, slept on her shoulder and traveled with her by land and sea.


Looking for more? Tour the full Vivien Leigh Collection at Sotheby’s here.