Messel's theatre sets continue to amaze

JO GREEN Celebrated stage designer Oliver Messel mixed with the cream of British society in the 1930s and 40s and his legacy endures today, most famously in the suite of rooms he designed for London’s Dorchester Hotel. With an exhibition celebrating his work now open in Norwich, Jo Green pays tribute to his remarkable talent.


In the 1930s and 40s, Oliver Messel was the toast of London's West End, thanks to the lavish costumes and sets he designed for theatre.

According to Margot Fonteyn, in 1949, sets he'd designed three years earlier for The Royal Ballet's production of The Sleeping Beauty, drew gasps of admiration from the audience, even before the ballet started.

Next week, those same designs will wow audiences once again when The Royal Ballet reprises them for a new Sleeping Beauty and they also form part of an exhibition of Messel's work which this week opened at Norwich's Assembly House.

Making and Doing is the Victoria and Albert Theatre Museum's first large-scale exhibition outside London and draws on an archive of 10,000 of Messel's designs, models, photographs, costumes and masks, which have been on loan to the museum from Messel's nephew Lord Snowdon since 1981. Following Lord Snowdon's death, the exhibits were bought by the museum last year.

For visitors it's a unique chance to get access to Messel's massive catalogue of work but, with a dressing up box on display, they'll also get the chance to design their own set and create their own mini stage productions in an exhibition designed to be as interactive as possible.

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Bringing the exhibition to the Assembly House is an act Messel, with his love of beautiful architecture, would have thoroughly approved of. Unbeknown to many, it is also partly thanks to him that the building remains as it is today.

From 1939 to 45, Messel worked for the War Office and was commissioned to find a building to house the camouflage school for the eastern region. The Assembly House, although almost derelict, delighted him and he was so taken by it he started a small-scale restoration of its Georgian architecture. Later he worked hard to persuade the trustees the building was worth restoring. “We're delighted to have the exhibition here,” says the Assembly House's marketing manager Sarah Baker. “It's especially significant as Oliver Messel had a strong personal connection with the house during the war years. We hope it will attract visitors of all ages, especially those with an interest in theatre and drama. After all, with a dressing up box, who could resist?”

Messel was born in 1904 into an affluent family. His maternal grandfather, Linley Samborne, was leading cartoonist with Punch and his father was an army colonel. Educated at Eton, alongside the likes of Evelyn Waugh, Harold Acton and Brian Howard, he attended the prestigious Slade School of Fine Art, at University College London and after graduating, initially worked as a portrait painter.

Waugh's literary snapshots of London in the 30s, bursting with theatrical bright young things, must have suited Messel well. He soon moved away from portraits into stage and set design, specialising in masks and costumes and, as his professional life expanded, so did the social whirl. The set he moved among was glamorous, showbiz and well-heeled. His friends included Noel Coward and Lord Berners, the latter of whom famously 'outed' Messel and several other leading lights when he wrote a novella The Girls of Radcliff Hall (a rather obvious nod to Radclyffe Hall, the notorious lesbian author of The Well Of Loneliness), in which Messel and other homosexuals in Berners' circle were given the parts of naughty schoolgirls.

One 'girl' who was not amused by the book was Cecil Beaton, also making a name for himself at the time as a set designer and photographer, who was parodied in the book for his obsession with the painter Peter Watson, who was at the time Oliver Messel's lover. It's said he bought up every copy of the book and burned them; the rivalry between him and Messel continued to smoulder for many years afterwards.

Living and working among such a glamorous set, it was no surprise to anyone when Messel's career began to soar and his name became internationally famous.

Even during the war he continued to design his trademark lavish sets for ballets, opera and the theatre and it wasn't long before he was being invited to work in Hollywood, designing sets for many films including The Thief of Baghdad (1940), Caesar and Cleopatra (1945) and Suddenly, last Summer (1959).

Today, many of his designs remain, most famously the suite at London's Dorchester Hotel, which he designed to his own taste. To stay there today would cost a cool £2,000 a night, for which you get to admire Messel's fabulous designs which include a pagan altar fireplace, gold leaf toilet seats, yellow silk walls and painted panels and doors.

Ornate, spectacular and luxurious, Messel's designs were always more suited to the grandeur of the stage and during the 1960s his lavish style began to fall out of fashion.

In 1967, Messel moved to St James, Barbados, where he designed many of the holiday homes frequented by the rich and famous until his death in 1978.

Today Barbados style remains synonymous with Messel's name and one shade of sage green, used repeatedly by him in island homes, is still known there as Messel Green.

Making and Doing is at the Hobart Room, the Assembly House, Theatre Street, until June 30. Open daily, free entry. Further details:

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