Sunday, July 10, 2011

Vivien Leigh, Artist's Muse

This is my contribution to Kendra's Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier Appreciation blog-a-thon, running this weekend, July 9th & 10th.

Vivien Leigh (1913–1967) by Thomas Cantrell Dugdale, c. 1936
Owned by Glasgow Museums, on display in Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery.

This post was inspired by a portrait of Vivien I unwittingly stumbled across in Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery a few weeks ago. Considering I am studying art history, I thought it would be appropriate subject matter for me, combining two of my loves!

Vivien Leigh was a well known name in the late 1930s, we know she toured with The Doctor's Dilemma in 1942 which played in Glasgow and Edinburgh. In 1936 The Happy Hypocrite went on tour, but I'm not sure if it played in Glasgow, though it did in Manchester. Unfortunately, there is little information on Vivien and her time in Scotland, so I can't really explain why this portrait ended up in Glasgow. I do know it was acquired by Glasgow Museums in 1936, the year it was painted. I don't know who commissioned it, nor why.

Vivien appears to be sitting upright in bed, the sheets pulled up to her waist, in an attractive gauzy nightgown, the black standing starkly out against the delicate background of the green and white sheets and pillows that surround her protectively. The glamour of her position is recognizable, with her fashionably teased hair, thin eyebrows, that striking red lipstick and highly polished red nails. She clasps her hands to her chest in an almost nervous, anticipatory gesture. Her expression is a little sad as she gazes questionably at the viewer.

The bed scene is an unusual one for portraiture, where sitters usually are depicted in settings appropriate to their position. Looking at this portrait retrospectively we can sadly reflect that Vivien did spend a significant amount of time bed bound, owing to her delicate health, so perhaps this setting is appropriate, but why the artist chose to paint her here - was it by choice or the situation he found himself in? Vivien's nervous, restless character is alluded to in Alan Dent's biography 'Vivien: A Bouquet' I found an entry from Oswald Frewen's diaries for Monday, August 31st, 1936:

'Returning to the Vivling's, and she came in with Laurence Olivier and an influenzal throat and chill. O. opined rum, and I popped over to the Pitt's Head and amused them by asking them to give me some in the tumbler I brought with me ... We pumped it into the Vivling with hot water added and sugar and she hated it... Larry was just amusing. He couldn't make out what I was doing in the house, why Viv was interested in my purchase of rum, nor least of all why I should sit on her bed and propose to 'talk her to sleep' after he had gone. He tried and tried and tried again to establish the fiat that we all leave her; she was wakeful. I said I had a voice calculated to put anyone to sleep in 10 minutes; Vivling agreed (with a seraphic smile); larry was not amused. Rang up next morning to ask how she was and who was the 'smasher (trade term for stage-door pushful over-enthusiasts)!'

Thomas Cantrell Dugdale RA was a British painter, born in in 1882 (d. 1952). During the Great War he served in Egypt, and painted a number of portraits of Air Marshalls and those serving on the front line, including nurses. His work was varied, he painted portraits of everyday people from fishermen to mothers as well as many exotic middle eastern landscapes, to street scenes of London. Not much is known about him, but from what I've seen, his palette can be bright and imitative of natural light, to solemn for more serious portraits, but bestowing all his subjects with an upright bearing and dignity.

His paintings seem to appear regularly at auction, including a number of society portraits. The one of Vivien above appears to be in this society portrait vein, but somewhat curiously, unlike the other portraits of Dugdale's I have seen she appears to be depicted as sitting in bed, which seems an out of the ordinary setting for a portrait. See also his portraits of silent movie actress Maudie Dunham, Lady Dorothy Etta Warrender, Wendy Hillier (held in the National Portrait Gallery) and Jessie Matthews (apparently in Andrew Lloyd Webber's own collection).

What was Vivien doing in 1936?
The year previously (1935) to this portrait being painted, Vivien had become an overnight sensation, having been discovered in The Mask of Virtue, which ran in London's West End. In 1936, she starred in The Happy Hypocrite alongside Ivor Novello. As for her personal life at this time, she had a young daughter, was a rising star in London's theatre world, and it was around this time that her affair with Laurence Olivier began, in 1937 their first film together Fire Over England was released.

Vivien sat for the society photographer, Madame Yevonde in 1936. It is interesting to be able to make comparissons between the two, to see how faithful the depiction of Vivien was. Of course, the methods being quite different. I love the contrast between the two depictions, in Cantrell's painting Vivien is cooly beautiful and elegant, a small smile playing across her face. In Yevonde's photograph we can see the vivacious Vivling that we love, a mischievous smile, a light dancing in her eyes, all fire and ambition - perhaps she'd seen Larry that day? She was clearly London's darling, at the height of her theatre career, her talent, charisma and beauty attracting painters and photographers alike, who wanted to capture her spirit on canvas and film. I love that she is wearing bold red lipstick in both representations, this says something about her too, always ready for her close-up, no matter where. Yevonde photographed other subjects depicted by Cantrell, such as Lady Dorothy Etta Warrender, mentioned above.

If you can tell me anything more about Vivien in Scotland, or about this artist or particular painting, please get in touch! Comments are very much welcomed!


  1. Zoe, this is so fascinating! What a great find. I've only ever seen that portrait in black and white, but the colors are really vibrant and gorgeous! I love all the research you did on the artist!

    Thanks so much for participating in the blogathon!

  2. Oh where did you see it?? Its absolutely gorgeous in reality and I recognised her instantly!

    No thanks for organizing it, I needed some blogging inspiration :) I really enjoyed writing it too.

  3. I came across it wile browsing the London Illustrated News archives through the Westminster Reference Library :)

  4. Fascinating post! The painting is beautiful and like you, I love the pop of the red lipstick. There's something very interesting about her expression I find.. her eyes are definitely tinged with sadness but she seems inviting in a very mild way too

  5. I bought a post card of this when I was a young man back in 1979 at a theatrical ephemera shop owned by David Drummond in Cecil Court, in between St Martins Lane and Charing Cross Road.l I think it was maybe £3.00 but it was not accurate in terms of colour at all, so it is a pleasure to see it. As a rather jaded boy who was used to being taken to theatre by one of my aunts from the age of 8, as much as I admired the Vivling from the first times I saw GWTW and "Waterloo Bridge" I never thought a great deal about having been taken to see her when I was 13 and 15 in "Tovarich" and "Ivanov" -- with Gielgud . She died when I was 16, and because of her passing, and being a bit of a pack rat, I never discarded my two playbills for these shows. It was only in my 40's that I realised, "Oh, my God! I saw Vivien Leigh on stage, TWICE!" Friends as well as dealers have offered me absurd amounts of money for these two playbills, but nothing could induce me to part with them. I only wish I had been born soon enough to see her on stage as Lavinia or Lady Macbeth.

    1. Mitchell thank you so much for your wonderful anecdote! How wonderful to have seen her on stage. The painting is beautifully vibrant in real life, and hangs in a quiet corridor of the wondrous Kelvingrove gallery. Are you aware of ? A great resource for fans of Vivling and Larry alike!