Major exhibition at Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft celebrates Dame Vera Lynn
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Major exhibition at Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft celebrates Dame Vera Lynn
Vera Lynn painting at her home in Finchley, London, 1956. Photo: Alamy.

DITCHLING.- Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft opened a major new exhibition celebrating one of Britain’s most beloved performers, Dame Vera Lynn. Running 8 January – 18 April 2022, Dame Vera Lynn: An Extraordinary Life showcases over 100 objects from the estate of the ‘Forces’ Sweetheart’, including numerous previously unseen personal items. Unveiled today is a new portrait of Dame Vera by Neil Gower, commemorating the entertainer’s life and work, and her love of Ditchling, where she lived from the 1940s until her death in 2020. Exhibiting never-before-seen objects from Dame Vera’s private collection, Dame Vera Lynn: An Extraordinary Life offers unparalleled insight into both the public and personal life of the singer, whose songs were crucial in maintaining morale during the Second World War. The exhibition also reveals never-before-seen artworks by Dame Vera, who was an enthusiastic painter for much of her life. There are 20 works on display, comprising portraiture and still-lifes painted at her London home, following the Second World War, and at Ditchling, where she owned a home from 1944.

The exhibition chronicles the nine decades Dame Vera spent in the public eye, from her early days as a singer, to her wartime service in the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA), through to her extensive post-war entertainment career and charitable works. Extraordinary objects detailing Dame Vera’s early life as a singer and dancer include the feather dress made by her mother and the tiara she wore when performing in Madame Harris' Kracker Kabaret Kids, the touring singing troupe she left school to join at just 11 years old. Her 1930s wage book is also on display, alongside her adolescent ballet and tap shoes.

A copy of a top secret instruction from King George VI for Vera Lynn to perform at the then HRH Princess Elizabeth II’s 16th birthday in 1942 is on display. The letter from the Variety Booking Manager at the BBC asks Vera Lynn to secretly excuse herself from her duties at the Empire Theatre, London for the Royal Command Performance at Windsor Castle. The letter was found alongside a programme from the party, signed by the other performers who appeared - these include the comedian Tommy Handley from ITMA (It's That Man Again radio show) and Jack Warner who was to find fame in Dixon of Dock Green.

During the Second World War Dame Vera toured Egypt, India and Burma, first with the ENSA and then under the management of the Army. Photographs of the young performer with troops are on display. Visitors are able to read moving letters sent in to her radio show Sincerely Yours, which connected servicemen with their loved ones at home. The show received upwards of 2,000 requests a week. Dame Vera’s secret leather diary from her three-month tour through Burma in 1944 is also being shown to the public for the first time, as she travelled 5,000 miles across the world in dangerous wartime conditions to perform to soldiers in the Burmese jungle. The Burma Star and War Medal she was awarded in 1985 for her efforts is also on display, alongside the iconic military shorts she wore when performing to Allied troops.

In the 1950s and 60s Dame Vera travelled the globe with her husband Harry Lewis who was her manager, and daughter Virginia - previously unseen objects from this time, including her travel trunk, travel iron and vanity case are on display. A Super 8 movie camera and a fabulously contemporary purple dress purchased by the singer when in Honolulu, Hawaii is also being featured.

Other highlights from Dame Vera’s wardrobe include dresses from her countless public appearances such as one in black velvet worn in 1952 when she appeared on the front of the New Musical Express having been the first non American artist to reach No.1 in the Billboard music chart in the USA. Five one-off pieces created exclusively for Dame Vera by British designer Colin Becke also are on display. The outfits, all made in the 1950s, include corseted dresses with net skirts such as the one she wore with the hearing impaired American singer Johnny Ray and a sequined one shoulder taffeta dress she wore with British singer Yana. A selection of Dame Vera’s accessories, including handbags, gloves, hats and shoes also are displayed.

Dresses from appearances on ITV and the BBC in the 1970s, including some from The Vera Lynn Show (1973-1975) and an orange billow-sleeve dress worn in her iconic appearance in the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show in 1972 are being shown. Visitors can also see a purple maxi dress with a floral sequined bodice and incredible pleated flute shaped sleeves which she wore to meet the Queen Mother and a floaty multi-tiered chiffon maxi dress from when she met the singer Ella Fitzgerald. Posters, playbills, gold discs and awards, including her 1959 Ivor Novello and her 2018 Classic BRIT Lifetime Achievement Award also are on display, recognising Dame Vera’s outstanding achievements in the entertainment industry.

Never-before-seen highlights from Dame Vera Lynn’s personal archive include her wartime wedding suit, which is being displayed alongside the small, surviving tier from her austere cardboard wedding cake from her marriage to musician Harry Lewis in 1941.

Dame Vera went on to attend the Arthur Segal School of Painting for Professionals and Non-Professionals in England’s Lane, London. At these classes, Segal’s students would study still life setups; sitters would also come and model for the students. Dame Vera Lynn painted for most of her life, and no less than 300 of her paintings are in existence. The vast majority have never been seen before in public. Over 20 of these works are on display for the very first time.

Dame Vera Lynn’s commitment to charity work and her patronage of Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft is acknowledged through a number of her medals for services to the nation, as well as her Grand Order of the Water Rats award from the 1973. Dame Vera was an active participant in village life - photographs of her at various events in the museum’s 36-year history are being displayed, alongside an original pen and ink cartoon for Freight magazine and photograph of her participating in the 'Ban the Lorries' Protest in March 1973.

The new portrait of the entertainer by Neil Gower was commissioned by Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft, following Dame Vera’s death in 2020 and was unveiled at the museum today. Neil Gower based the design on bookplates produced by the St Dominic’s Press in Ditchling, and has incorporated Sussex locations Dame Vera knew and loved including the Ditchling village church St Margaret’s, where she is also commemorated, and the Seven Sisters cliffs.

Virginia Lewis-Jones, daughter of Dame Vera Lynn, said: “I’m highly delighted that this exhibition is taking place and it’s right and proper that it should begin its life at Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft. I look forward to the opening, and we hope it brings lots of interest and joy to the people who come and visit.”

Steph Fuller, Director and CEO of Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft said: “This has been an incredibly exciting exhibition to put together to commemorate our former Patron Dame Vera Lynn. Displaying her personal items including the diaries and correspondence really brings Dame Vera to life for a new generation, and it’s been a privilege to be able to work with her family to do that.”

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