the oliviers

Winston Churchill’s ‘Marvellous’ Gift to Vivien Leigh

Sotheby’s recently announced a major sale of objects from the Vivien Leigh estate. On September 26, paintings, jewellery, photographs, clothing, furniture, and other valuables belonging to the late Oscar-winning actress will go under the hammer here in London. Among the treasures that Vivien’s family have kept all these years is an oil painting by Vivien’s friend, the former Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Titled Roses in a Glass Vase, the painting was one of many Churchill produced as a lucrative hobby in the 1950s. His passion led to a book, Painting as a Pastime, which inspired Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier to pick up brushes and create their own works of amateur art.

Italian landscape painted by Vivien Leigh, 1950s. Oil on canvas. / Sotheby’s
Vivien Leigh painting at an easel in the garden. Possibly Italy. / Sotheby’s

According Sotheby’s, borrowing from a passage in Vivien Leigh by Hugo Vickers, Churchill gifted Roses in a Glass Vase to Vivien during a midnight dinner in 1951:

Depicting flowers picked from Churchill’s beloved garden at Chartwell, his country home in Kent, Roses in a Glass Vase was gifted to Vivien in 1951, during a midnight supper hosted by Churchill on the birthday of Leigh’s husband, Sir Laurence Olivier. 

Roses in a Glass Vase by Sir Winston Churchill. Oil on canvas board. / Sotheby’s

Vivien gave a somewhat different account of the painting exchange when she appeared as a contributor in the documentary series Winston Churchill, the Valiant Years, produced by Ben Feiner. The episode (part 26) aired  on ABC on Sunday, June 11, 1961. Filming from inside Eaton Square, Vivien enthusiastically recounted the feeling of wonderment she experienced when walking around Churchill’s art sanctuary:

I’ve always loved pictures, and I think one of the most wonderful, marvellous experiences of my whole life was when Sir Winston allowed me to see his. I’d been lunching with him at Chartwell, and after lunch – I remember it was a lovely, sunny day – we were walking around the garden and we came to a garden house with, I suppose, four or five rooms in it. And in each one the walls were simply covered in his own paintings. I was astonished and fascinated by the number and variety of them. But as I was passing one particular one of them, I said, “Oh, Sir, that is beautiful.” And to my absolute bewilderment he said, “Would you like it?” So, actually I practically fainted, I didn’t know what to say. I believe I gave him the understanding that I would be more thrilled and honoured than I can possibly say if I could have it. So he said he would send it to me for Christmas. However, two weeks later, a marvellous package arrived, and there it was with a letter, which of course I shall keep all my life, saying, “I couldn’t wait until Christmas.”

However the transaction took place, Roses in a Glass Vase was indeed treasured by Vivien for the rest of her life. Speaking with journalist David Lewin in 1960, she emphasised how much it meant to her:

“Churchill also gave me one of his own paintings showing three rosebuds in a vase, and I hang it up in front of my bed at home so I can always see it when I wake up in the morning.

“Whenever I feel particularly low or depressed I look at those three rosebuds. The thought and the friendship in the painting is such a great encouragement to me… and I have the determination to go on”.

Now a lucky Vivien Leigh fan or art collector can own this sentimental treasure as well as the Italian landscape piece pictured above, and the easel and art supplies that she took with her on her travels. The painting is expected to fetch between £70,000-£100,000.

Kendra has been the weblady at vivandlarry.com since 2007. She lives in Yorkshire and is the author of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait, and co-author of Ava Gardner: A Life in Movies (Running Press). Follow her on Twitter @kendrajbean, Instagram at @vivandlarrygram, or at her official website.

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Comments (10)

  1. Hey Kendra! This is fascinating! But why are they selling it?? I’m assuming this is Vivien’s grandson and their families who who have all these things now? Don’t they want to keep memories of her – especially a painting by her! And she was quite good it seems!

    1. Hi Irina!

      Yes, it’s the grandsons selling now that Suzanne has passed away. Hopefully the great grandchildren elected to keep some mementoes, but estate sales are usually done for money.

  2. I loved reading this thanks Kendra. Chartwell is one of the properties my husband looks after for the National Trust. I have been to Chartwell on sunny days and felt such comfort there. It is a remarkable place. His studio still exists, still filled with his amazing works of art!

    1. Hi Sarah,

      How fabulous that your husband works for the National Trust! I love stately homes. I haven’t yet been to Chartwell but will go some day!

      1. You would love it Kendra! The gardens are just beautiful too. There is still the little brick playhouse that he built for his girls! It’s certainly a place Vivien would have fitted in at and she would have loved the gardens. They still have his fish ponds too with the descendants of his beloved fish! x

  3. Oh what I,d give to have that painting knowing It,s Provenance .I wonder if any of Viv,s own artwork will be for s.ale Methinks I,ll need to appoint you Or ale as a bidder for me .Easier than me doing it On line.as long as the prices Don,t go too high why oh who can’t I go To London so soon after July

    1. It would be lovely if I won the lottery but I really fancy the cigarette case but the price for that will go sky high Are you going to the sale .