And doubtless there will be many more Dame Vera Lynn exhibitions to come.
But it will always be Ditchling that led the way with what director/CEO Stephanie Fuller describes as a “glorious one-off.”
Running from January 8-April 18 2022, Dame Vera Lynn: An Extraordinary Life showcases more than 100 objects from the estate of the Forces’ Sweetheart, including numerous previously unseen personal items.
Also unveiled 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.
Stephanie said: “There is so much fantastic stuff and I’m sure there will be a lot more exhibitions in other places but for us this is just a wonderful celebration of her as a person and of her life in the village.
“I didn’t know her personally and sadly I never met her, but I feel like I’ve got to know her through this exhibition, and it has been fantastic. I feel now that I’ve got a real sense of her as a person.
“And I think the thing that sticks in my mind the most is the ease with which she made emotional connections with people. There are letters that people sent to her radio programme that was running during wartime, letters both from wives and mothers and sisters and girlfriends at home and from the servicemen themselves overseas, and they are really touching.
“I just think she had that real understanding of the importance of emotional connection and how important it was to keep that alive with the people at home at a time when that wasn’t really the done thing. It was all about the stiff upper lip and just getting on with it, but she really did have that connection with people at an emotional level.
“And there is a lovely little bit of film that we are showing from her Burma trip. She is sitting there leaning on a jeep and chatting with a whole lot of boys and they all look so comfortable and relaxed. It’s like she is standing in for girlfriends and wives. It just feels so very special.
“But here in the village where she lived for so many years there are so many people obviously that knew her so well. It seems that everyone has got their stories of her, of how she would walk down to the butcher’s and stand in the queue with everybody else. She was very involved in village life in a very simple way. There was no sense of her being grand or whatever. People knew she was special but she was just one of them.
“The exhibition has been a bit of a process of evolution. She was patron of the museum right back in the early days and was a good friend of one of the founders. When Dame Vera died in 2020 we found that we really wanted to do something to commemorate her life in the village and her relationship with the museum so we decided to commission a new portrait of her and that’s how it really started.
“I got in touch with her daughter Virginia to see if she found that that would be acceptable and she was very much on board with the whole thing. And at the time there was some discussion that there might be a little bit of ephemera that we could put on display with the portrait. We were keen to do something but we were thinking it would be quite small. And then I went to visit the archive and there was masses of stuff, fantastic stuff, lots and lots of beautiful costumes, lots of letters and sorts of things that have been kept very carefully by Dame Vera for most of her life. And we knew that she painted as a kind of hobby and there were more than 300 paintings of hers which was so interesting.
“And so we came back thinking that we had to find a gap somewhere in the schedule and do a whole museum show because there was just so much that was so good. We have been working on it since then and last year we decided that it would be full scale. It has been an amazing privilege to have the opportunity to show such a lot of very personal possessions most of which have never been seen before – and to be able to show them now in the village where she lived. It is one of those never-to-be-repeated opportunities. This is the first show and the first chance to see most of these materials, most of which will go on to be homed in the major national institutions, I am sure, and it is so lovely to be able to do that in the village that meant so much to her.”