Finest Hour 177, Summer 2017
The estate of film legend Vivien Leigh (below left) will go under the hammer this summer at Sotheby’s in London. The auction brings to light a little known but exceptionally fine painting by Winston Churchill (below right), which he presented as a gift to his favorite actress.
Depicting roses from the garden at Chartwell displayed in a glass vase, the still life may have been done in the 1930s and given to Leigh in the late 40s or early 50s. The actress treasured it so much that she hung it on the wall opposite her bed. In her own words: “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.”
Leigh’s friendship with Churchill ran deeper than many people knew, as attested to by a 1957 letter in which Churchill secretly promised to donate money to the St James’ Theatre, which the actress was trying to save at the time. And it seems Churchill himself inspired Leigh to take up painting, after he gave her an inscribed copy of his book Painting as a Pastime. Both the letter and book are included in the sale.
Churchill enjoyed seeing Leigh performing in Shakespeare live on stage and never tired of watching her again and again in That Hamilton Woman, one of his favorite films. Leigh sent Churchill flowers on his ninetieth birthday and gathered with Noel Coward at the Savoy to watch Churchill’s funeral on television two months later in January 1965. Following Leigh’s own death two years later, the painting passed to her daughter, who also kept it in her bedroom until passing away in 2015.