Major exhibition at Guildhall Art Gallery offers new perspective on Noël Coward


The visual impact of Noël Coward’s life and work will be celebrated in a major exhibition opening at Guildhall Art Gallery next month.

Noël Coward: Art & Style, which opens at the City of London Corporation’s gallery on Friday 20 November, will take a fresh look at the work of the playwright, composer, director, actor and singer, who is known for his sense of personal style.

The free exhibition will focus on the extraordinary sets and costume designs of Coward’s original theatrical productions and feature rarely exhibited pieces from his homes and wardrobe, alongside artworks by Coward and his designers, couture costumes, personal letters, photographs, and film objects.

Noël Coward: Art & Style will also explore how ‘The Master’ and his circle influenced fashion and culture in ways that endure to this day, and present him in a contemporary light as innovative and fundamental to the development of 20th century culture and design.

The exhibition, which is a partnership between the City of London Corporation, The Noël Coward Foundation, and The Noël Coward Archive Trust, coincides with the 100th anniversary of his West End debut as a 19-year-old playwright. Coward wrote and appeared in I’ll Leave It To You, which premiered at the New Theatre – now, renamed the Noël Coward Theatre – in 1920.

During the six-month run of the exhibition, Guildhall Art Gallery will host live and online talks, workshops, and outreach education activities, designed to engage new audiences and inspire future generations.

Highlights of Noël Coward: Art & Style include:

  • Original clothing pieces worn by Coward, including two silk dressing gowns, and his grey top hat refurbished for this exhibition by its maker, Lock & Co.
  • Vintage 1930s and 1940s dresses by couturiers Edward Molyneux, Victor Stiebel, and Norman Hartnell.
  • A specially commissioned reconstruction of the iconic satin dress designed by Edward Molyneux in 1930 for Gertrude Lawrence in Private Lives.
  • Coward’s sheet music, including an original page of his handwritten lyrics for Mad Dogs and Englishmen, and rare photos from productions, portraits, and fashion shoots.
  • Set and costume design sketches for Coward’s première productions by Cecil Beaton, Roger Furse, Oliver Messel, William Nicholson, Oliver Smith, Rex Whistler, Doris Zinkeisen, and Gladys Calthrop.
  • Original paintings by Cecil Beaton, Clemence Dane, Gluck, Oliver Messel, Sir William Rothenstein, Doris Zinkeisen (Self-Portrait, 1929 will be on loan from the National Portrait Gallery), and several of Coward’s own paintings.
  • A ‘selfie spot’ for visitors to take their own photographs alongside Norman Parkinson’s iconic 1939 portrait of Coward.

Wendy Hyde, Chair of the City of London Corporation’s Culture, Heritage and Libraries Committee, said: “This free and widely anticipated exhibition will be a must-see for anyone interested in visual art, costume and stage design, and the history of British theatre, as well as admirers of Coward’s plays, songs and films.”

“My colleagues and I are looking forward to seeing how this show will throw a spotlight on one of the most popular and stylish performers of his age.”

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The gallery received the ‘We’re Good to Go’ industry standard and consumer mark, led by Visit Britain / Visit England, ahead of its reopening in August. Covid-19 safety measures have been introduced to ensure the wellbeing of visitors, including daily deep cleaning; hand sanitiser stations; one-way routes with two-metre social distancing markers.

Tickets for Noël Coward: Art & Style are free-of-charge, but must be booked in advance and for specific visitor time slots.

Brad Rosenstein, curator, Noël Coward: Art & Style, said: “Coward is especially celebrated for his verbal wit, but Art & Style will remind us that his original productions were also visual feasts for their audiences, a vital element of his theatrical world shaped by the extraordinary designers with whom he worked, and his own brilliance as a director.

“These productions had an international influence on fashion and were reflected in Coward’s personal style – from his wardrobe to home décor – and just like his plays and songs, still seem fresh, contemporary, and surprising today.”

Elizabeth Scott, the City of London Corporation’s Principal Curator, Guildhall Art Gallery, said: “Immaculately dressed, charming, erudite, and devastatingly witty, Noël Coward was an icon of his time, and the exhibition will feature some remarkable pieces of art, costume, and memorabilia to pay tribute to his enduring style and legacy.

“This ground-breaking exhibition will enjoy a six-month run and were he alive today, we feel sure that Coward would be expecting it to generate the type of ‘unqualified praise’ that he once memorably spoke of.”

Main image: Photo by Vandamm Studio. Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts Gertrude Lawrence and Noël Coward in Private Lives, 1931, Times Square Theatre, New York.

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