Remembering Vivien Leigh

We’ll soon be treated to a disbursal of the effects of the extraordinary Vivien Leigh, with fine and decorative arts and personal memorabilia from her sadly short life but sensationally fruitful career. It is extraordinary to consider that she’s been gone for 50 years, but I suppose that’s a component part of the timelessness spoken of to describe a person of matchless talent.

John Piper, ‘Notley Abbey’, watercolour and gouache

The sale will include items from the homes she shared with her paramour then husband Laurence Olivier. Notley Abbey, the country home they shared, restored and decorated with help from the legendary decorator John Fowler, and their bijou London home, Durham Cottage in Chelsea.

Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier at Durham Cottage, Chelsea

Recounting these names in the context of a single paragraph sends shivers down my spine. How wonderful it would have been to be a part of the lives of these Olympian figures. Even now as a jaded man of very, very late middle age, the thinking of the confluence of these lives makes me weak in the knees.

Vivien Leigh and Warren Beatty, ‘The Roman Spring…’ or any other season!

As does the thought of a very young Warren Beatty in a late Vivien Leigh opus, ‘The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone’, but I mustn’t be too salacious, or at least not this early in the morning.


Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando, ‘Streetcar…’ and desire!

Or paired with a luscious Marlon Brando in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’. Yes, I promised to leave concupiscence aside, but my mind even as a superannuate sometimes runs that way.


Keith and I do feel an oblique connection with Miss Leigh, having sold an exquisite piece that once graced Notley Abbey, and installed there by no less than the redoubtable John Fowler. A particularly fine quality William and Mary period Japanese lacquer cabinet mounted on a giltwood stand, we didn’t at the time of acquisition realize its connection with either John Fowler or the Oliviers.

William & Mary cabinet on stand, from Stoke Edith to Beverly Hills, via Notley Abbey

Although the cabinet on stand itself was unprovenanced at the time of our acquisition, the presence of an old label to the reverse from a carver and gilder in Hereford put us on to a notion that a piece this grand must have been in a stately home- and presumably that home was near Hereford.

Stoke Edith

As these things so often happen, our acquisition of the piece coincided with the publication of John Cornforth’s Early Georgian Houses. Leafing through it, I quickly saw an old Country Life photos of the now lost manor house Stoke Edith. There beneath the wonderful decorative painting wrought by Sir James Thornhill was the cabinet on stand. Further research brought us quickly to the disbursal of it and the surviving contents following a fire that led to the eventual demolition of Stoke Edith in the 1930’s, and the cabinet’s acquisition by Colefax and Fowler for placement in Notley Abbey.


The great hall, Stoke Edith, with the cabinet on stand to the right

This tangential contact with Vivien Leigh hardly brings Chappell & McCullar into the ambit of the Oliviers, but it is nevertheless a wonderful anecdote to recount, and makes us all the more interested in the upcoming auction. Does this make us, pardon me, ‘star-f—ers’? No, no, never- but for those of my gentle readers who are, here’s the follow-on. We did sell the cabinet on stand to a show business celebrity for placement in her home near to Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills, in a house that was for years the residence of Merv Griffin, with a rose garden laid out by no less than Merv’s good friend Nancy Reagan. Now I suppose we’ve been caught out, so I’ll admit this business does have some tantalizing aspects.

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