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 Vivian 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 Vivian 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.

Originally published at Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier.