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Vivien Leigh: A Century of Fame Exhibit

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This autumn, Vivien Leigh fans the world over are celebrating the British actress’ 100th birthday. The tributes have kicked off in the cozy village of Topsham in Devon, where several of Vivien’s personal possessions are on display as part of the “Vivien Leigh: A Century of Fame” exhibit at the Topsham Museum.

“Vivien Leigh: A Century of Fame” highlights the connection between Vivien and Topsham, and includes items that explore her image as a film and stage star, as well as the woman behind the star image. The building itself was the former house of Dorothy Holman, the museum’s founder who also happened to be Vivien’s sister-in-law from her marriage to Leigh Holman. Vivien visited Dorothy in Topsham on several occasions. Her daughter, Suzanne, lived with Dorothy for a time during the war before being evacuated to Canada, and still has ties with the museum today.

I went down to Devon with Robbie and my friend Marissa on Saturday. We were met at the museum by director Rachel Nichols, who gave us a lively tour of the exhibit. On display are items from the museum’s permanent collection, including the dress Vivien wore to the premiere of Laurence Olivier’s film Richard III in 1956, and the nightgown she wore as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind. The exhibit has been supplemented with items borrowed from the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, the Bill Douglas Centre and Bristol Theatre Collection. Suzanne Farrington has also loaned some personal items, including family photographs and my favorite, a wooden model theatre purchased by Laurence Olivier in 1945 – believed to be German in origin – containing a small doll depicting Vivien Leigh as Sabina in Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth. It’s a small, but intimate space that allows visitors to get an intimate view of these treasures.

I was really glad to hear that the exhibit has attracted large numbers of people to the museum. It just goes to show that Vivien’s allure has transcended decades and generations. The items on display have the effect of making Vivien seem alive and current. Topsham is a beautiful place and I’d highly recommend going for a visit. “Vivien Leigh: A Century of Fame” runs until October 31. Admission is free.

All photos © Kendra Bean, 2013.

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Memorabilia from A Streetcar Named Desire, including the handbag Vivien carried in the 1949 London stage version.

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The museum’s permanent showstopper is the Walter Plunkett-designed nightgown Vivien wore while playing Scarlett in Gone With the Wind. The gown was gifted to Vivien by David O. Selznick after filming wrapped, and was found inside an old trunk of Vivien’s possessions in the back of Dorothy’s house. The original is currently on display.

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Bodice details

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I saw this Gone With the Wind board game and marvelled at the sheer fact that a Gone With the Wind board game exists.

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Detailing on the dress Vivien wore to the London premiere of Richard III in 1956.

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“I have two dresses of hers that I’m afraid I had let out, but the design wasn’t altered so a judicious pin at the waist should really restore them. I would wear them but can’t bare to sell them. If you’d like them I’d love you to have them but I’d hate to burden you with more responsibilities, but they are very glamorous and after all most people enjoy unattainable glamour.” – Suzanne Farrington to her aunt, Dorothy Holman. Dress loaned by RAMM.

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Black calf skin dress, courtesy of RAMM.

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Model theatre, courtesy of Suzanne Farrington.

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4 thoughts on “Vivien Leigh: A Century of Fame Exhibit”

  1. Marissa says:

    Lovely blog post! The pictures look amazing! It was such a fun and memorable day. 🙂

  2. Suzi Bloemker says:

    Kendra – Thank you so much for posting all of these pictures from the exhibit. I can almost picture being there myself. My favorite is the dress that she wore to the Richard III premiere. Such exquisite embroidery!!! She surely would have stood out from SLO in that!!! If I had it, I would wear it at Christmas or any day!!

  3. Tabitha says:

    Kendra,
    Fantastic photos. Good to see that they are still around.

  4. Karen Mackowey says:

    I believe I have one the first printings of Gone With The Wind book..please advise!…thank you…sincerely, Karen

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