Category: london

Inside the Oliviers’ Love Nest

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Inside the Oliviers’ Love Nest

Today’s post comes to us courtesy of Lena Backström, a long-time fan of the Oliviers from Sweden. Over the years I’ve gotten to know Lena fairly well. When this site first launched she kindly contributed scans from her private collection to the Photo Gallery – many of which I had never seen before. It was a real treat. Since then, we’ve met in person a couple of times, catching up over lunch and swapping stories whenever she’s in London for a visit.

Recently, Lena did some extended research into Durham Cottage, the Oliviers’ love nest in Christchurch Street, Chelsea, west London. Laurence Olivier bought the house (the former coach cottage belonging to the larger Durham House next door) as a London base for he and Vivien Leigh. Using quotes from biographies and excerpts and rare photos from vintage Swedish magazines, Lena was able to plot out what the house looked like when the Oliviers lived there from 1937-1956.

Below is Durham Cottage as we’ve never seen it, but there are some lingering questions: where, exactly, was Laurence Olivier’s study? When did they decide to have separate bedrooms (or were there always two)? Can you help us with the answers?

Oliviers Durham Cottage Oliviers Durham Cottage Oliviers Durham Cottage Oliviers Durham Cottage Oliviers Durham Cottage Oliviers Durham Cottage Oliviers Durham Cottage Oliviers Durham Cottage Oliviers Durham Cottage Oliviers Durham Cottage Oliviers Durham Cottage Oliviers Durham Cottage Oliviers Durham Cottage Oliviers Durham Cottage Oliviers Durham Cottage Chelsea

Thanks for the job well done, Lena!

If you’ve got a unique idea for a guest post and would like to contribute to the content at, please get in touch.


#AskTheCurator: Starring Vivien Leigh

london photography vivien leigh

#AskTheCurator: Starring Vivien Leigh

Vivien Leigh by Bertram Park, 1935 © NPG

Last week, Twitter launched an initiative called #MuseumWeek wherein the denizens of the social media network got virtual tours behind the scenes at some of Europe’s hallowed cultural institutions. I have had the good fortune to team up with Terence Pepper and Clare Freestone to co-curate the Starring Vivien Leigh: A Centenary Celebration, currently on in room 33 at the National Portrait Gallery. And I was honored to be asked to represent the NPG for #AskTheCurator day.

On Friday from 2-3pm, I answered questions about the display, and about what it’s like to curate a museum exhibit. (It’s really fun. I think I’ve found my calling!) You can view the entire conversion below:

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Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait

book news events london vivien leigh

Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait at the National Portrait Gallery

Last Thursday I had the opportunity to give a lecture about Vivien Leigh at the National Portrait Gallery here in London to kick off the opening of the “Starring Vivien Leigh: A Centenary Celebration” exhibit, which I was also invited to co-curate. Vivien proved to be a very popular subject last month, with a hugely successful BFI film retrospective, some of the V&A items going on display, and now the NPG show. There have been numerous articles and mentions of her life and work in newspapers, magazines, on the radio, and across the web. I feel honoured to be involved and to have been able to contribute to the resurrection of Vivien’s memory in some way.

Needless to say, the free lunchtime lecture at the NPG (they have them every week, usually to coincide with one of the exhibitions) was hugely popular. The house was completely full, and apparently about 50 people had to be turned away due to lack of space. This was my first-ever big lecture, and I was terrified. Kind of like Vivien used to do before her performances, I was shaking and grasping my boyfriend’s arm with ice cold fingers before I went on stage. But once I got into it, I felt a lot better and was glad that the audience was so responsive. It was a wonderful learning experience and it has given me confidence for my next major talk in February at the Victoria and Albert Museum, as part of a Vivien Leigh symposium (more on that soon).

I really enjoyed speaking about my love for Vivien, and I hope you enjoy it, as well. If you’re in or around London between now and the end of July 2014, I highly encourage you to stop by the NPG to see the Starring Vivien Leigh display. It’s free and it’s a great selection of photographs and ephemera showcasing her unique career.

classic film events london

Hollywood costumes come to London!

(Via the V&A)

On October 20, the Victoria & Albert Museum brought Hollywood filmmaking to the heart of London. Hollywood Costume, curated by designer and historian Deborah Nadoolman Landis (Raiders of the Lost Ark), is an ambitious and beautiful exhibition that illuminates the central role costume design has played throughout a century of Hollywood filmmaking. As a previous resident of southern California, I’ve seen a fair share of old Hollywood costumes before. I’ve even been lucky enough to try some on (it turns out that with enough sucking in, I’m the same size as Hedy Lamarr). But none of these experiences had prepared me for the sheer volume and awesome spectacle of this exhibition.

I met up with Zoe from Vagabond Language on a particularly cold day a couple weeks ago. Exhibitions are always more fun when you see them with someone else who enjoys the subject matter as much as you do. Several of the most iconic outfits in film history were on display. Most astonishingly, they weren’t behind glass cases, but out in the open with strategic lighting and projected images that made it seem as if we had stepped into a Technicolor fantasy.

The exhibition is arranged in three sections: Deconstruction (designer’s research), Dialogue (innovation and design), Finale (a huge mash-up of noteworthy designs).  There were costumes worn by everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Matt Damon – Mary Pickford to Meryl Streep and just about everyone in between; we’re talking Hedy Lamarr, Carole Lombard, Elizabeth Taylor, Johnny Depp, Greta Garbo, Kate Winslet, Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland – they even had the original ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz shipped over from the Smithsonian.

vivien leigh gwtw dresses

While I enjoyed the full range of costumes on offer, there were two that particularly stood out to me. These were the green curtain dress and  red ostrich feather dress worn by Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, which were among those recently restored by the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas. This exhibition marks the first time the costumes have been in the UK since the 1940s and it was surreal to view them up close. I’d seen a version of the green dress at the Atlanta History Center back in 2009, but was quite unprepared for the vision of the red dress. Major kudos to the people who did the restoration. It looks absolutely stunning. It also reaffirms the fact that Vivien Leigh’s waist was smaller than my thigh.

Aside from ogling at the artistry on display, I was quite surprised to see that many of the older costumes came from a select few collectors or costume companies in Los Angeles and Asia. It must have taken quite a while for the curators to track all of them down, let along negotiate for them to be shipped to London.

Whether you’re in to fashion, film or plain old nostalgia, Hollywood Costume has something for everyone and should be on the top of every tourist’s list of things to see and do in London.

*Hollywood Costume runs until January 27, 2013. Advance bookings strongly recommended.


london photography

Exploring London: Kew Gardens

Kew Gardens

I realize that this is only the second post in my “Exploring London” photography series. There are reasons for this: time and rain, rain, rain. The sun has chosen a few scattered days to grace us with its presence, but on the whole, this summer has been wet and miserable. I’m definitely missing the heat back in California right now. Needless to say, I haven’t had many opportunities to take my camera for a spin.

Two Saturdays ago, however, I went out to west London for a long walk around the famous Kew Gardens. It’s a bit pricey (£14.50 for an adult), but you only live once, as they say. I was armed with my 50mm f/1.4 lens, which is brilliant for photographing people and nature up-close. The extremely high f-stop lets in an abundance of light and throws out the background. It’s by far my favorite lens to use.

Kew Gardens, or The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, is a large open space out by Richmond that contains the world’s largest collection of  living plants. There are various greenhouses scattered across the expertly landscaped park that house a variety of plants from different climates. Also in the park are several beautiful, historical buildings. I found Kew Palace to be the most impressive, aside from the fact that you have to pay extra to go inside, which I chose not to do. The 17th century architecture reminded me much of Drayton Hall in Charleston, South Carolina, which my friends Maggie, Kasia and I visited as part of our Gone with the Wind roadtrip through the South in 2009. Other notable features at Kew include the Japanese Pagoda, Victorian Palm House, the Orangery, and Queen Charlotte’s Cottage, a 16th century garden retreat complete with thatched roof. Sadly, my lens was fixed-with, making it difficult to photograph buildings.

While I was in Kew, I had hoped to take a photo of the Q Theatre where Vivien Leigh made her first-ever stage appearance in a play called The Green Sash. Alas, it was torn down in the late 1950s and replaced with a block of flats.

Kew Gardens can be reached via the London Overground and the District Line trains to Richmond.

*Photos © Kendra Bean, all rights reserved. Links take you to my flickr account.

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