Monday, 25 March 2013

Oliver Messel

Oliver Messel self portrait at the age of 19?
"Meeting the small, mercurial, comfortable and immaculately dressed man that was Oliver Messel, one would never have suspected that he was the most famous theatrical designer and decorator Great Britain had ever produced. He was rare among the practitioners of his art in being a painter first and then a scene designer, having acquired his craft through making theatrical masks and painting portraits".
Charles Castle

Tilly Losch and chorus in the 'Dance Little Lady' number from Noel Coward's 1928 revue
Evelyn Laye in the 'white on white' bedroom set for the Cochran/ Max Reinhardt  production of 'Helen'  (1932)
 Messel also designed lavish sets and costumes for Caesar and Cleopatra (1945)
Oliver Messel was born with a silver spoon in his mouth in 1904. Uncle to Anthony Armstrong Jones, the Earl of Snowdon, who married Princess Margaret. His family owned several beautiful period houses, one of which, Nymans, is very close to my home in Sussex.

Now owned  by the National Trust it is open to the public, but is a shadow of its former self due to fire damage in 1947. Although there is a 'new' wing designed by Messel.

The year before last they held an extraordinary exhibition there of Messel's work including early programme and set designs for Glyndebourne as well as some exquisite props.

Statuette of Bacchus in the Penthouse Suite, Dorchester Hotel, decorated by Messel.
In his later years the sensible fellow moved to Barbados, where he carried on with his painting, film and theatre work and even designed homes for his wealthy neighbours.

The Gingerbread House in Barbados designed by Messel .
There is a mass of his intricate, romantic and fanciful work to feast on, if you have the time to seek it out.

" I attempted to use every device to make as much magic as possible"


  1. Am I barking up the completely wrong tree by thinking he has some connection to Anthony Armstrong Jones? I'm so blooming gormless that I could very well be... worrying innit?


    P.S. Own up time... just gone and read the blog properly, instead of just looking at the pictures and speed reading... Sorry! Gormless...YES!

  2. Fascinating stuff - I've just learned more about Messel than I did when I visited Nymans last year. Mind you, I was a bit distracted by craft exhibits in every room, some of which were good & some (I thought) very poor. I wish I seen the previous year's exhibition!