A recent exhibition at the Guildhall Art Gallery in London has proved popular with old and new fans of the English playwright Noël Coward. Extended due to popular demand until 23rd December 2021, Noël Coward: Art and Style celebrates Coward’s life and works through a vibrant display of never-before-seen materials from the Coward Archive. The exhibition marks the 100th anniversary of Noël Coward’s West End debut as a 19-year-old playwright.
Noël Pierce Coward was born in Teddington, south-west London, on 16th December 1899 to Arthur Sabin Coward (1856-1937), a piano salesman, and Violet Agnes Coward (1863-1954). Coward received little formal education but started appearing in amateur plays from the age of seven. His mother encouraged his passion for the stage and sent him to a dance academy in London, despite low family funds. In 1911, Coward received his first professional acting role in The Goldfish by Lila Field (d.1954).
Over the following few years, Noël Coward starred in roles for children and teenagers in several plays, including Where the Rainbow Ends at the Garrick Theatre and A Little Fowl Play at the London Coliseum. He was also cast as Slightly, a Lost Boy in Peter Pan.
In 1914, the society painter Philip Streatfeild (1879-1915) took Coward under his wing and introduced him to high society friends. Sadly, Streatfeild passed away the following year from tuberculosis, but Coward’s new friends encouraged him to continue to perform. During the First World War, Coward starred in The Happy Family (1916) at the Prince of Wales Theatre, Charley’s Aunt (1916), and The Saving Grace (1917).
During the early war years, Coward also experimented with art. He filled many notebooks with ink and watercolour drawings, the majority featuring satirical caricatures and stage costumes. In hindsight, these drawings demonstrate the future dramatist’s understanding of the importance of clothing on the stage. Clothes can transform their wearers into particular characters and personas.
In 1918, Coward was conscripted into the Air Force but was discharged after nine months because he was deemed at risk of contracting tuberculosis. Coward immediately threw himself back into the world of theatre, collaborating on two plays with his friend Esmé Wynne: Ida Collaborates and Women and Whisky. He followed this with his first solo effort, The Rat Trap, which eventually premiered in 1926.
Coward’s first full-length play was I’ll Leave It to You, which opened in the West End in 1920. It received mixed reviews, and Coward returned to acting for a couple of years. His first real success as a playwright occurred in 1923 with The Young Idea, in which he also starred. Coward’s first financial success, on the other hand, was with The Vortex (1924), a play about a nymphomaniac socialite and her cocaine-addicted son. As well as writing the script, Coward acted the part of the son and raised the funds to produce the play.
The Vortex met with success in London and America, and Coward hired his first business manager, Jack Wilson (1899-1961). Rumours suggest Wilson and Coward became lovers, which is why Coward forgave Wilson when he later stole money. Wilson was the General Manager for the production of Coward’s 1930s comedy Private Lives and the producer of Tonight at 8.30 (1936), Set to Music (1939) and Blithe Spirit (1941).
By 1929, Coward was one of the world’s highest-earning playwrights, with an annual income of £50,000. This is the approximate equivalent of £3,000,000 today. Despite the Great Depression of the early 1930s, Coward thrived. Furniture and items from Coward’s house, which are now in the Coward Archive, demonstrate the extent of his wealth. One example is the Wings of Time, a tin sculpture Coward purchased in an auction at Herstmonceux Castle, Sussex, in 1929. Produced in the 17th century, the wings extend from an hourglass, which Coward saw as an allegory for the passing of time. He often spoke about the passing of time, and the wings soon became both a treasured possession and a personal signature. The wings usually hung above Coward’s fireplace, but today they are usually on display at the Noël Coward Theatre.
When the Second World War broke out in 1939, Coward took a break from the theatre to participate in official war work. He began by running the British propaganda office in Paris, after which he started working for British intelligence. His main task involved using his fame and popularity in America to persuade the USA to support Britain in the war. Although he could not reveal that he was working on behalf of the Secret Service, Coward’s name ended up in the Nazi’s Sonderfahndungsliste G.B.(“Special Search List Great Britain), more commonly known as the Black Book. It listed British residents the Nazi’s wished to arrest and/or kill when (if) they invaded Britain. Other people on the list included Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), Nancy Astor (1879-1964), Clement Attlee (1883-1967), Winston Churchill (1874-1965), Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960) and H. G. Wells (1866-1946).
After the Americans joined the war, Churchill instructed Coward to entertain the troops at home. For reasons unknown, Churchill disliked Coward and forbade King George VI (1895-1952) from awarding Coward a knighthood for his services with British Intelligence. Begrudgingly, Coward toured, acted and sang around the world, following British troops across all continents.
During the Blitz, Coward’s London house was destroyed, so he took up temporary residence at the Savoy Hotel in the Strand. While sitting in an air raid shelter, Coward and his fellow musicians partook in impromptu cabarets to distract their frightened companions. Coward also penned several war-themed songs, such as London Pride and Don’t Let’s Be Beastly to the Germans.
When not entertaining troops and civilians, Coward worked alongside the film-producer David Lean (1908-91) to direct In Which We Serve, a British patriotic war film. Coward was inspired by Captain Lord Louis Mountbatten (1900-79), who was in command of the destroyer HMS Kelly, which sank during the Battle of Crete (1941). The film proved popular, and Coward won an honorary certificate of merit at the 1943 Academy Awards ceremony.
Coward also wrote Blithe Spirit during the war years, which some critics say is his greatest work. The play was first seen in the West End in 1941 and was recently adapted into a film starring Dame Judi Dench (b.1934) as Madame Arcati, an eccentric medium and clairvoyant. The main character, novelist Charles Condomine, invites Madame Arcati to a séance in the hope it will provide material for his new book. Instead, the ghost of Condomine’s ex-wife appears during the session and endeavours to ruin his marriage to his second wife.
Although Coward continued to write plays after the war, they were not as successful as his pre-war work. He wrote on a mixture of themes, such as political comedy, romance, satire, and musicals. Unfortunately, the musicals Pacific 1860 (1946) and Ace of Clubs (1949) were financial failures.
During the Second World War, Coward met the photographer Cecil Beaton (1904-80), who had long envied Coward’s success as a playwright. Unable to write satisfactory plays, Beaton became a costume and set designer instead. Their wartime meeting eventually led to a collaboration on the production of Coward’s play Quadrille in 1952. Beaton revealed to Coward, “it has always been my ambition to do scenery and costumes for one of your plays,” and set to work designing appropriate Victorian sitting rooms.
Set in the mid-Victorian era, Quadrille is a romantic comedy about an English aristocrat and the wife of an American businessman. Whilst The Manchester Guardian critiqued the play as “affectionate and sincere as well as amusing and elegant”, The Daily Express deemed it “a waste of expensive talent”. Nonetheless, Beaton’s costume designs earned him his first Tony Award.
Despite his lack of success, Coward remained a high profile figure, continuing to perform in plays and cabaret acts. In 1955, Coward appeared in Las Vegas for the first time and released the album Noël Coward at Las Vegas. The album reached number 14 in the Billboard albums chart and features songs written or arranged by Coward. Notable songs include Mad Dogs and Englishmen, World Weary, and Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love by Cole Porter (1891-1964).
Coward’s most successful post-war musical was Sail Away (1961), set on a luxury cruise liner. He also directed a musical version of Blithe Spirit, called High Spirits (1964), and collaborated with Beaton on Look After Lulu! (1959). Coward also published his first novel, Pomp and Circumstance (1960), which received critical acclaim. Coward’s final stage success was Suite in Three Keys (1966), a trilogy set in a hotel penthouse suite.
Although no longer writing as prolifically, Coward continued to act, including in notable films, such as Around the World in 80 Days (1956), Our Man in Havana (1959), and The Italian Job (1969). Gradually, Coward drifted away from the stage and screen, turning down many prestigious roles. He declined the offer to play the king in the original stage production of The King and I and replied, “No, no, no, a thousand times, no,” when asked if he would like to play Dr. No in the 1962 film of the same name.
Today, it is accepted that Noël Coward was homosexual but due to the convention of his times, Coward never publicly admitted to the fact. Coward believed private business should not be discussed in public, so it is not easy to determine with whom he had a close relationship. Yet, many agree that Coward’s most important relationship was with the South African stage and film actor Graham Payn (1918-2005). The exhibition at the Guildhall goes as far as to say Payn was one of the greatest loves of Coward’s life.
When Coward wrote his plays, he often envisaged Payn as the leading man. He also composed songs to suit Payn’s voice. The two remained almost inseparable until Coward’s death, after which Payn organised the Coward Archive. It is thanks to Payn that many of Coward’s personal items remain in safekeeping today.
When reading diaries and letters, Coward’s generosity is evident. He not only cared for his friends but many disadvantaged people. From 1934 until 1956, Coward was the president of the Actors’ Orphanage, a home and school for many parent-less children. The Orphanage received support from the theatrical industry, hence its name. Coward expressed genuine concern for the children’s welfare and improved their living conditions during his term as president. Coward actively sought out patrons for the orphanage, often throwing garden parties where the public could rub shoulders with both actual and theatrical royalty. On these occasions, Coward sported a top hat and white gloves, which became one of his signature outfits.
When not dressed up for parties, Coward could often be found wearing a dressing gown with a cigarette in hand. He first wore a dressing gown onstage in The Vortex and reused the fashion in several other plays, including Private Lives and Present Laughter (1942). It soon became Coward’s signature look on stage, so he incorporated dressing gowns into his everyday life.
When not working, Coward retreated to his country house, Goldenhurst Farm, in Aldington, Kent. He purchased the property in 1926 and lived there until 1956. Post-war tax regimes increased the expense of running the large house, so Coward sold up and left the country. Today, the house is divided into two dwellings, one of which belongs to the British comedian Julian Clary (b. 1959).
Coward initially settled in Bermuda before buying a house in Jamaica. He lived near James Bond author Ian Fleming’s (1908-64) Jamaican residence, and the two became good friends. Fleming and Coward both found Jamaica a welcome retreat from the world of literature, and Coward used it as an opportunity to focus on his amateur hobby of painting.
From childhood, Coward loved to draw and paint. He often drew ideas for characters and costumes, but over time he left the theatrical subject behind, preferring to paint still-lifes and landscapes. Coward found the different lights and colours in tropical landscapes fascinating, particularly in Jamaica. Although he jokingly referred to his painting style as “touch and Gauguin,” Coward captured the endless vistas of sea and sky, the bright sunlight and the warmth of the people.
Although Coward welcomed the break away from the theatre, he did not stop writing altogether. Coward wrote some of his final plays in Jamaica, only returning to England to help direct and produce them. He also bought a house in Les Avants, Switzerland, where many celebrities sought solace. Coward’s neighbours included David Niven (1910-83), Richard Burton (1925-84), Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011) and Julie Andrews (b. 1935).
In 1970, Coward finally received his knighthood. It has never been ascertained why Churchill denied him the badge after the Second World War, although some suggest Churchill may have objected to Coward’s sexual orientation. Sir Noël Coward graciously accepted the long awaited award and attended the ceremony at Buckingham Palace with two close friends, actor Joyce Carey (1898-1993) and designer Gladys Calthrop (1894-1980). Coward often referred to Carey, Calthrop and a couple of other friends as his “chosen family”.
Following his knighthood, Coward was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and received a Tony Award for lifetime achievement. In 1972, he gained an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from the University of Sussex. Unfortunately, Coward’s poor health limited his enjoyment of these achievements. Coward suffered from memory loss and arteriosclerosis, which contributed to his death from heart failure on 26th March 1973, at age 73.
Coward died at his home in Jamaica and was subsequently buried on the island. In London, a memorial service took place at St Martin-in-the-Fields in London, where the Poet Laureate, John Betjeman (1906-84), John Gielgud (1904-2000), Laurence Olivier (1907-89) and Yehudi Menuhin (1916-99) all read or played music in his honour. A decade later, the Queen Mother (1900-2002) unveiled a memorial stone in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey. When Graham Payn thanked her for coming, she replied, “I came because he was my friend.”
The accolades did not end there. In 2006, the recently closed Albery Theatre in St Martin’s Lane, London, reopened under the new name, The Noël Coward Theatre. Before then, the Queen Mother unveiled a statue of Coward in the foyer of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in 1998. Statues of Coward are also displayed in New York, Jamaica, and Teddington, where he was born.
The exhibition at the Guildhall Art Gallery is just one of the many ways Coward has been honoured since his death almost 50 years ago. “Even the youngest of us will know, in fifty years’ time, exactly what we mean by ‘a very Noel Coward sort of person’,” said English theatre critic Kenneth Tynan (1927-80) in 1964. Noël Coward: Art & Style proves Tynan right.
Booking is required to visit the Noël Coward: Art & Style exhibition at the Guildhall Art Gallery in London. Entry is free, but the gallery wishes to limit numbers in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The exhibition is open every day until 23rd December 2021.