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The John Gielgud Collection Auctioned - Sotheby's

Sir John Gielgud was born in 1904 and died on 21 May 2000.

His garden retreat at south Pavilion, attached to his home Wotton House - built in 1704 - at Wotton Underwood near Aylesbury in Buckingham and which was also auctioned with the house and was created by Sir John over the past 20 years.

Was Gielgud really "the greatest Shakespearean actor in the world"? He certainly brought grace and melody to his work but some roles, he said himself, where limited by what he called "Lack of virility". But he will forever be renowned for his voice described by Sir Alec Guinness as "a silver trumpet muffled in silk" and he is said to be the greatest speaker of Shakespearean verse in the century. He was the most self-critical of actors and had humility which many of his life fellow thespians lacked, which is why he remained approachable, unpretentious and loved to the end.

He was arrested in 1953 for "cottaging" (homosexual term for men picking up men for sex in public toilets!!) and fined £10. They now say he was "cottaging" in Chelsea but I remember reading in the press that at the time it was on Shepherd's Bush Green!!! Gielgud dreaded going back on stage in Liverpool after the story broke but the audience rose and applauded him bringing later a tear to Gielgud eye. But the scandal was to haunt him his entire life; he was prevented from working in the USA for four years after. From then on he battled to keep his personal life as private as possible. The climate amongst the Establishment was so anti-gay in the 50's that when the orchestral conductor Sir Malcolm Sargent was asked to meet Gielgud he replied, "I don't think I can. You see, I mix with royalty". There was still a stigma attached to "the love that dares not speak its name" (Oscar Wilde) that at one time Gielgud considered committing suicide but said he wouldn't now how to!!

It in the '90's Gielgud's long-term partner died - an abrasive and slightly sinister, mysterious Hungarian called Martin Hensler. Although shattered, Gielgud did not stop working on the films that supported him when he could no longer sustain a stage role. (Hensler had no interest in Gielgud's career and made him leave his London house in Cowley Street, in the shadow of Big Ben, Westminster, for the countryside. )

Acting was Gielgud's raison d'etre, his obsession, so much so that when returning home with the newspapers Beverley Nichols saw a pained expression on his face and asked him if war had finally been declared (1939). "Oh, I don't know about that", said Gielgud "But Gladys Cooper has got the most terrible reviews." A few days before his death, at the age of 96, he telephoned Maggie Smith and protested "I'm thinking of changing my agent. I'm just NOT getting enough work!"

In the new career which he carved for himself in his later years where the films Forty Years On (Alan Bennet) in which Gielgud played the headmaster; Scandalous with a punk Sir John; Brideshead Revisited with Jeremy Irons; the triumphant Indian Summer; partnering Ralph Richardson as a desolate, mental patient in Home; and in Pinter's No Man's Land where he was a grumpy old poet.

Amongst his treasures to be auctioned were his Panama hat (in which he was photographed by Cecil Beaton in 1955), his gloves, his cigarette-case, his personally-annotated volumes of Shakespeare, a picture by Dame Laura Knight and of Sir John at the Regent Theatre, London preparing to play his first Shakespearean lead as Romeo in 1924. There was also exquisite paintings and a porcelain satinwood Regency breakfast table, a George II mahogany bureau, and some smaller items such as his pet dogs' identity tags, cufflinks and swizzle sticks.

In his honour the Globe Theatre on London's Shaftesbury Avenue has been re-named the "Gielgud": he said, "at last there is a name on Shaftesbury Avenue that I can recognise"!

He was educated at Westminster school and made his debut at the age 17 at the Old. Vic. His great aunt was the famous actress Ellen Terry. He had been an "actor" from a child - playing with his toy theatres. His mother, Kate, came from the Terry family and Ellen had worked with Sir Henry Irving. He is almost the last contemporary actor to have seen great performers from an earlier age- Sarah Bernhard, George Maurier, Eleanora Duse and his contemporaries included Sir Laurence Olivier, Dame Peggy Ashcroft, Alec Guinness, Michael Redgrave, Dirk Bogarde, John Mills and Ralph Richardson. He won an Oscar in 1981 for his role as Dudley Moore's long-suffering butler in Arthur; and he was the Oxford Don in Chariots of Fire.

He was knighted in 1953 and appointed to the Order of Merit by the Queen in 1996, the highest accolade for achievement she can offer. He was even filming on his 96th birthday - Samuel Becket's Catastrophe - even though he was in a wheelchair. At the end he was given a huge ovation by the cast and crew.

On the night following his death London theatres blacked out their light as tribute to him: we shall not see another actor like him again.

[Sir Cecil Beaton was a stage designer and court photographer, taking many photographs of royalty and, indeed, Sir John and his contemporaries Sir Alec Guinness and Sir Ralph Richardson. Beaton was also designer of the My Fair Lady set when the original production (based on Bernard Shaw's Pigmalion) was produced at Covent Garden starring Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews including the black and white fabulous Ascot Scene where Elisa Doolittle (played by Julie Andrews) who is being coached to speak "proper English" suddenly launches onto Cockney and shots to a horse "move yer bloody arse!!" You can read about Sir Cecil Beaton in my diary under Photographic Exhibition 2001.]

 

Verinha Ottoni.




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