Noël Coward, so often seen as an upper-class dandy in a dressing gown, but who was actually a middle-class workaholic, charity fundraiser, and even now, some of his work in WW2 remains classified.
The Noël Coward of popular imagination is not the man at all, and that’s in part his own efforts to create the public persona of a louche man about town without a care in the world.
A new exhibition at the Guildhall Art Gallery looks at the man behind the myth.
If you had to describe the glamorous era of the art deco period as one man, it would be Noël Coward. In reality, he was a child actor who became an exceptionally young producer who pushed the limits of what theatre was allowed to do, driven to exceptional bouts of hard work, a gifted songwriter and someone with an early eye for the values of personal publicity.
Although born to middle-class parents, his famously clipped upper-class accent was a way of talking to his partly deaf mother and concealing a slight lisp. His dressing gowns were a short-lived period in his life as he said they were “so comfortable to act in” when in reality he was far more often seen off stage in a suit.
The dressing gown can’t be dismissed and repeatedly appears throughout the exhibition, the ghost of Coward hanging over everything.
The exhibition is a theatre lovers delight though, being packed full of photographs and memorabilia of his time as a writer and director of plays, mostly but not always the ones he wrote himself. A lot of the displays show off the staging of the plays and his extensive work with theatre set and costume designers. His film career took off in 1941, and the exhibition has managed to pull together a lot of candid behind the scenes photographs of Noël Coward and many of the top actors of the times while on film sets.
Although to many today famous for his debonair attire and clipped accent, the exhibition shows off the visual feasts he delivered to audiences who came to see a play, not a one-man show.
Although well known at the time if less so today, his other passion was the Actors’ Orphanage, which looked after children their parents couldn’t afford to support. He was a prolific fundraiser and was one of the earliest developers of the celebrity fundraiser event, and the exhibition includes a number of photos from an era where everyone wore black tie to a special event.
Despite his war work, his charity work, and his success on film and stage, he was repeatedly rejected for the knighthood anyone else with his background would have received. Churchill personally blocked a recommendation in 1943. Was it homophobia, for while never declaring himself to be gay, he was as openly gay as was legally tolerable at a time when it was illegal to be gay?
In the post-war years his career declined, although he had bursts of popularity with new songs, and a number of films, probably most famously The Italian Job.
Noël Coward rarely visited the UK after the 1950s though, as he lived abroad as a tax exile, only able to come to the UK for a few days a year. He lived in his beloved Jamaica, once appearing in a tourism poster to support the local economy. Even then the fashion trendsetter was in action, and the jacket he wore became a hit, and later known as the Nehru jacket, after a later famous wearer of the style.
He was eventually awarded a knighthood in 1970, and his Knight Bachelor insignia badge is on display. He died in 1973.
It was, as is so often the case with artists, he gained new fans after his death, with a new appreciation for his plays and songs.
As an exhibition, it focuses much more on his work than his life, and yet shows us how much more complex a man could be found underneath that famous dressing gown.
The exhibition ends with a small wooden box — look inside and see Noël Coward in 3D. He owned an early 3D camera, and the photos here bring him vividly back to life once again.
Entry also includes the rest of the Guildhall Art Gallery, which if you’ve never been before, is a bit of a hidden gem in London.