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Noël Coward: Art and Style

Guildhall Art Gallery, Guildhall Yard, London EC2V 5AE. Until December 23 2021
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
Published on September 2, 2021

Gertrude Lawrence and Noël Coward Gertrude Lawrence and Noël Coward in Private Lives, 1931, Times Square Theater, New York. PHOTO BY VANDAMM STUDIO ©BILLY ROSE THEATRE DIVISION, NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS

As well as being one of the 20th century’s most prolific and successful writer-performers, Sir Noël Coward (1899-1973), and the creative circle he gathered round him, were a huge influence on the design, fashion, and popular culture of the era. This revelatory exhibition, which marks the 100th anniversary of Coward's first visit to the United States, brings together never-before-seen materials including costumes, furniture, photos, paintings, and personal items from the Coward Archive and explores this important visual aspect of his creativity. It’s a must see for fans and a true eye-opener for those less familiar.

Noël Coward White Dress The white satin, bias-cut, evening dress worn by Gertrude Lawrence in Private Lives. ©MATT CROCKETT

He was what today would be called cross-platform, being a playwright, actor, director, songwriter, poet, novelist, memoirist, painter, producer, filmmaker, philanthropist and TV and cabaret performer, and importantly he also had a totally modern instinct for self-promotion, which would make any Instagrammer blush. Unlike them however, he totally understood how to create ‘buzz’ while deflecting its consequences, so he could retain a private life. In all these guises he crafted an image of impeccable style and sophistication and created an archetype for the modern man-about-town. But there was much more to his style than just chic costumes and décor, and this great exhibition gets to the heart of that.

It explores his lifelong collaborations with designers beginning at a time when Edwardian fustiness was being swept away by modernity. He started out in CB Cochran’s review shows where he learned the importance of design and was soon breaking new ground. He was also a staunch champion of women designers, such as his close friend, Gladys Calthrop, who he used for 25 years. Great couturiers of the day such as Edward Molyneux and Normal Hartnell dressed his leading ladies in trend-setting styles and a highlight here is a stunning reconstruction of Molyneux’s white satin, bias-cut, evening dress which was worn by Gertrude Lawrence in Private Lives (1930). The costume designers he used typically blended style with restraint while using rich, crisply tailored, fabrics, and what could be more quintessentially English than that?

His humor, of course, served rather like a deflecting mirror which allowed him to explore more deeply both the social and emotional complexities of his age. As a gay man, at a time when you could go to jail for it, he had to navigate those waters and it gave him an acute appreciation of the role of the outsider. He knew too that if you’re going to attempt to enlighten the British public, you’d better make them laugh while doing it. He pushed the boundaries of representations of class and sexuality on stage and along the way fashioned an alternative vision for masculinity. All of this, be it his radical ménage-à-trois play Design for Living or the way he dressed and presented himself in numerous photoshoots, are all wonderfully presented here.

Many forget that he was not ‘posh’ at all, having sprung instead from “genteel poverty” as he put it. Yet, through sheer talent, wit and will, he managed to make himself one of the highest paid stars in the world by the age of 30.

His love affair with America is well represented here too, from his Broadway triumphs with the Lunts to his 1955 season at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas, where Peter Matz’s sparkling arrangements gave a new lease of life to the songs and the man. That iconic album cover for the LP Noël Coward At Las Vegas, with 'The Master,' nonchalant in a tux, cup of tea in hand, standing in the white heat of the Nevada desert, couldn’t have epitomised him more.

Noël Coward& Gladys Calthrop Stylishly attired for travel, Noël Coward and his longtime production designer Gladys Calthrop depart Waterloo on the boat train bound for New York, 1936. COURTESY OF THE CINEMA MUSEUM




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