The V&A's revealing Vivien Leigh tribute heads to Oliver Messel's home of Nymans
The former home of theatre and costume designer Oliver Messel has taken delivery of one of his creations; the Cleopatra headdress designed for Vivien Leigh
Vivien Leigh: Public Faces, Private Lives includes items by set and costume designer Oliver Messel. Until September 4 it will be set in the romantic interiors of his former home – the National Trust’s Nymans in West Sussex.
Featuring more than 100 pieces on loan from the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Vivien Leigh archive, the touring exhibition features costumes and sketches, photographs and scripts.
Letters and diaries also shine a light on the private life of a star who shot to fame as the Oscar winning actress who played Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind and was later married to Laurence Olivier between 1940 and 1960, but who struggled with depression and ill health.
Fans can also explore Leigh and Messel’s creative collaboration on stage and screen with costumes and artefacts from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1937) and the film version of George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra (1945).
A 1943 letter from Leigh to the designer, recently discovered by Messel’s nephew in a family archive, shows the bond between them: “I have of course told Pascal [Gabriel Pascal, director of Caesar and Cleopatra] that nobody in the world must do the costumes except you.”
The magnificent headdress Messel made for Leigh as Cleopatra in the film is displayed alongside her Cleopatra costume, together with Messel’s original costume sketch and stills from the film, both of which have never previously be displayed.
The film put on hold Messel’s wartime work as a camouflage expert, where he turned his talents to transforming pillboxes into haystacks, castles or roadside cafes, as well as more bizarre commissions.
Nymans has long been considered the early inspiration for the talented Messel, whose theatre designs also included the sets for the Sadler’s Wells Ballet (now The Royal Ballet) production of The Sleeping Beauty (1946) starring Margot Fonteyne .
“We’re really excited that our visitors will be able to see this new exhibition at Nymans and learn about the wonderful connection between Vivien Leigh and Oliver Messel,” says exhibition and programme officer Nikki Caxton. “The Gothic ruins here provide the perfect dramatic backdrop and invoke a real sense of theatre.
“It’s no surprise that Messel went on to develop his artistic talents, and he continued to return to Nymans as his career took off, even creating a studio space in the grounds where he’d work on early designs, in a place that inspired him.
“Nothing much has changed at Nymans, and nowadays our visitors can soak up the same atmosphere as they explore the woods and fields beyond the house and garden boundaries.”
- Vivien Leigh: Public Faces, Private Lives runs from June 1 – September 4. Open 11am-4pm, normal admission charge applies. Operated on a timed ticket system. Tickets are available on the day and cannot be pre-booked.
For more information on Nymans, visit nationaltrust.org.uk/nymans or call 01444 405250.