The gallery has been offered a number of touring exhibitions commemorating the life and career of Marilyn Monroe. With the fiftieth anniversary of her death approaching we decided we would generate our own display, more appropriate for the National Portrait Gallery, celebrating the star’s British connections. Although Monroe was an American actress, she was of course, a hugely popular international star and she had been photographed in New York in 1956 by one of the most celebrated British photographers of the twentieth century, Cecil Beaton.
A selection of the Beaton portraits forms a key part of the display, which brings together over fifty further rarely seen vintage prints, film stills and magazines that celebrate Monroe’s life and work.
As we began our research we found Monroe’s connections to Britain to be more numerous than we had originally thought. We identified other British photographers who had captured her strikingly photogenic looks, including society portraitist Antony Beauchamp and Baron, photographer of ballet dancers, the royal family and beautiful women. Both had photographed the star in Hollywood.
A trip to see the film adaptation of Colin Clark’s book My Week with Marilyn characterized another aspect we would address: Monroe’s one and only visit to the UK for the filming of The Prince and the Showgirl. Between Monroe’s arrival at Heathrow on 14 July 1956 and her departure on 20 November, the British press followed Monroe as much as was possible.
My colleagues’ visit to archives of Life magazine in New York resulted in the inclusion of two less well-known images of the star, taken by Larry Burrows at the Savoy Hotel press conference to announce the beginning of Monroe and Olivier’s collaboration. Another Burrows image of children waiting for Monroe to emerge from behind the gates of Parkside House, Surrey, where she stayed whilst filming at Pinewood also emerged. Life magazine contributed George Silk’s photograph of Monroe sitting on a sofa, engaged in conversation with the poet Edith Sitwell. The pair, meeting in January 1953, during Sitwell’s visit to Hollywood, got on very well, talking about the work of Rudolf Steiner, which Monroe was reading.
The Prince and The Showgirl generated a large amount publicity material and for the display we were lent an original poster as well as lobby cards and film stills. We got in touch with the family of British director Roy Ward Baker, who had worked with Monroe in 1952 on Don’t Bother to Knock, in which she starred, contrary to stereotype, in a serious acting role.
We have also included twenty British magazines, which demonstrate Monroe’s huge appeal as cover star to sell magazines, some of which inspired British pop artists such as Peter Blake, Richard Hamilton and Pauline Boty to create iconic artworks. Today, fifty years after Monroe’s death, we hope that this celebration of the Hollywood star’s British connections provides a fitting tribute to her life and helps to explore why her image still remains so powerful.
As part of the display Marilyn Monroe: A British Love Affair
Image Credits (from top to bottom)
Marilyn Monroe by Cecil Beaton, 22 February 1956, NPG x40273
Edith Sitwell and Marilyn Monroe, 1953 Photograph by George Silk/LIFE © Time Inc.
Poster for The Prince and The Showgirl, 1957, courtesy Lloyd Ibert Collection