Messel was born in London, the second son of Lieutenant-Colonel Leonard Messel and Maud, the only daughter of Linley Sambourne, the eminent illustrator and contributor to Punch magazine. He was educated at Hawtreys, a boarding preparatory school in Kent, Eton — where his classmates included Harold Acton, and Brian Howard — and at the Slade School of Fine Art, University College. After completing his studies, he became a portrait painter and commissions for theatre work soon followed, beginning with his designing the masks for a London production of Serge Diaghilev's ballet Zephyr et Flore (1925). Subsequently, he created masks, costumes, and sets — many of which have been preserved by the Theatre Museum, London — for various works staged by C. B. Cochran's revues through the late 1920s and early 1930s. His work as a set designer was also featured in the US in such Broadway shows as The Country Wife (1936); The Lady's Not For Burning (1950); Romeo and Juliet (1951); House of Flowers (1954), for which he won the Tony Award; and Rashomon (1959), which was nominated for a Tony Award for his costume as well as his set design. He also designed the costumes for Romeo and Juliet; Rashomon; and Gigi (1973), the latter two receiving Tony Award nominations. For film his costume designs include The Private Life of Don Juan (1934); Romeo and Juliet (1936); The Thief of Bagdad (1940); and Caesar and Cleopatra (1945). For Romeo and Juliet he also served as Set Decorator. He was Art Director on Caesar and Cleopatra (1945), On Such a Night (1956) and Production Designer on Suddenly Last Summer (1959), for which he was nominated for the Academy Award.
The famous Messel Penthouse Suite at London’s Dorchester Hotel
Oliver Messel was an English artist and one of the foremost stage designers of the 20th century. Messel fell in love with Barbados, where he moved in 1966 and spent the last twelve years of his life with his long-term companion and manager, Vagn Riis-Hansen, with whom he had a 30-year relationship. In Barbados he reinvented himself as an architect, designing and decorating houses for private clients, and on nearby Mustique as the architect to the island's owner, the Hon. Colin Tennant.
Rex Whistler; Gerald Tyrwhitt-Wilson, 14th Baron Berners; Oliver Messel; Cecil Beaton, by Cecil Beaton, bromide print, 1931, 7 7/8 in. x 7 6/8 in. (203 mm x 197 mm), Accepted in lieu of tax by H.M. Government and allocated to the Gallery, 1991, Photographs Collection, NPG x40681
Oliver Messel by Angus McBean, vintage bromide print, published in The Sketch 15 March 1950, 19 7/8 in. x 14 1/2 in. (504 mm x 368 mm), Purchased, 2008, Primary Collection, NPG P1304
Oliver Messel by Yvonne Gregory, half-plate glass negative, 25 January 1933, Purchased, 2007, Photographs Collection, NPG x132026
Oliver Messel by Gordon Anthony, bromide print, 1937, 15 in. x 11 1/8 in. (381 mm x 282 mm) image size, Purchased, 1988, Photographs Collection, NPG x44780
Anne Parsons (née Messel), Countess of Rosse ((1902-1992), Former wife of Ronald Owen Lloyd Armstrong-Jones and wife of 6th Earl of Rosse; daughter of Leonard Messel) and Oliver Messel by Desmond O'Neill, vintage print, November 1958, 8 1/8 in. x 10 in. (205 mm x 253 mm) image size, Transferred from Evening Standard Library, 1983, Photographs Collection, NPG x184061
During World War II he served as a camouflage officer, disguising pillboxes in Somerset. According to his fellow officer Julian Trevelyan, he revelled in the opportunity to give his talents free rein. His pillboxes included faux haystacks, castles, ruins and roadside cafes.
In 1946, Messel designed the sets and costumes for the Royal Ballet's new and highly successful production of Tchaikovsky's ballet The Sleeping Beauty, a production which famously starred Margot Fonteyn. It became the first production of the ballet shown on American television, on the program Producers' Showcase. That production, the first ever televised in color, survives on black-and-white kinescope and has been released on DVD. In 2006, it was revived by the Royal Ballet, starring Alina Cojocaru, with some new additions to the scenic design by Peter Farmer, and this production is also now on DVD.
In 1953, he was commissioned to design the decor for a suite at London's elegant Dorchester Hotel, one in which he would be happy to live himself. The lavishly ornate Oliver Messel Suite, which the hotel advertises as Elizabeth Taylor's favorite place to stay in London, combines baroque and rococo styles with modernist sensibility and a considerable dose of fantasy. The suite, along with other suites that he designed in the Dorchester, are preserved as part of Britain's national heritage. It was restored in the 1980s by many of the original craftsmen, overseen by Messel's nephew, Lord Snowdon (Anthony Armstrong-Jones), the former husband of Princess Margaret.
The Great Room at the Cotton House Hotel on Mustique, a Messel design
Oliver Messel came from a wealthy, well-connected family and when his nephew, Anthony Armstrong-Jones (Earl of Snowdon), married HRH Princess Margaret, a life-long relationship with the British royalty began. Messel was later to design Les Jolies Eaux, Princess Margaret’s home on Mustique Island in The Grenadines (a 45 min flight west of Barbados) and Point Lookout the extraordinary stone beach house on the northern tip of Mustique. In 1959, Messel, exhausted by a demanding theatre season and recurring arthritis, retreated to Barbados and the lush beauty of the eastern Caribbean. He was 55 and at the peak of a career in which he had dazzled three decades of theatre-goers with his fantastic, romantic and inspired stage sets and costumes. The warmth, colour and vibrancy of the tropics seemed to liberate new sources of energy and imagination, leading him to what would eventually become a whole new career in designing, building and transforming homes. Not content to rest there, he also designed many furnishings for these homes, particularly for outdoor use.
Maddox House, the simple bay house that Messel bought in Barbados. Maddox House was the first house that he redesigned on the island and other residents soon lined up to hire him to remake their own properties. The famous Messel Green paint can be seen on the upper floor shutters and awnings. Messel added all the dramatic and romantic flourishes to the old building – the urns, the fancy windows, French doors, the columns, the gates and the arches
Messel bought an existing house in Barbados called Maddox, a simple bay house perched above a small beach on the St. James coast. With the help of his companion Vagn Riis-Hansen and a Barbadian staff, he gradually transformed it using all the trademarks of his theatrical design: slender Greek columns, flattened arches, white-on-white interiors splashed with bright spots of colour, elaborate plaster mouldings - an easy mix of baroque and classical. It was his use of the materials and traditions of island architecture that was truly innovative. Wealthy friends clamoured for Messel to design houses for them, both on Barbados and Mustique, and thus began what architect Barbara Hill described as “his work … of converting quite ordinary houses into wonderlands.” As well as his own home, Maddox, he re-designed and supervised the renovations of Leamington House and Pavilion (for the Heinz family), Crystal Springs, Cockade House, Alan Bay and Fustic House. He designed and built Mango Bay from scratch and was commissioned by the Barbados government to restore the old British officers Garrison headquarters in Queens Park, creating an elegant adaptation of it to a theatre and art gallery.
The beautiful Cockade House, a former sugar plantation, was built in the 18th century and redesigned by Oliver Messel for the Haywood family. Recently, Stair Auctioneers held a sale of all the household goods from Cockade House for the estate of Emma Pauline Haywood. Cockade House is thought to be one of the prettiest houses on the island
He would probably have gone on to do much more on Barbados, but was lured away by his friend Colin Tennant, Baron Glenconner and his private island home, Mustique. Glenconner commissioned Messel to design all the houses built on the island. Between 1960 and 1978 Messel created some 30 house plans, of which over 18 have so far been built - a tangible and lasting tribute to his genius. But Barbados remained his first island love and his home, and he died there in 1978, at the age of 74. Fustic House was one of his favourite properties on Barbados.
Mango Bay on Barbados was built by Oliver Messel for Pamela and Averill Harriman. As with most Messel designs on Barbados, the house has many verandahs, arches, fanlights, and pavilion like wings
One lasting legacy is that his preferred light sage green shade of paint, now known as “Messel Green’ by paint companies in the Caribbean, has been immortalized as many property owners choose this colour for its quintessential Caribbean-ness.
Images: http://cotedetexas.blogspot.com/2009/02/mr-barbados-oliver-messel-retrospective.html (many more there if you are interested!)
Oliver Messel: In the Theatre of Design edited by Thomas Messel
Hardcover: 272 pages
Publisher: Rizzoli (October 4, 2011)
Amazon: Oliver Messel: In the Theatre of Design
A vibrant study of one of the iconic figures of twentieth-century design, whose Romantic, whimsical, and wholly original style influenced a generation of architects and decorators. Oliver Messel was one of England’s foremost interior designers of the twentieth century, whose work also spanned the worlds of the stage design, film, and architecture. Born into a creative family of wealthy bankers, his career began in 1925 designing for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. He eventually became an internationally celebrated designer, branching out into drama, film, opera, interior design, textiles, and architecture. Romanticism and eccentricity were hallmarks of Messel’s style. His sets were famed for their exquisite delicacy, impossible detail, subtlety of color, and inventive use of materials. From the 1930s to the postwar period, Messel explored the fields of interior design and architecture, eventually designing numerous houses built on the islands of Mustique and Barbados for the jet set of the 1960s and ‘70s, among them Antony Armstrong-Jones (Earl of Snowdon) and Princess Margaret. Oliver Messel is filled with previously unpublished images that chronicle a unique, eccentric, and, until now, largely overlooked oeuvre that reached across several mediums and continues to influence insiders from the worlds of interior design, architecture, and fashion. Edited by Thomas Messel with an introduction by Lord Snowdon, an epilogue by Anthony Powell and texts by Stephen Calloway, Keith Lodwick, Jeremy Musson, and Sarah Woodcock
Oliver Messel: A Biography by Charles Castle
Hardcover: 272 pages
Publisher: Thames & Hudson (August 1986)
Amazon: Oliver Messel: A Biography
Oliver Messel (Illustrated) by Roger Pinkham
Paperback: 200 pages
Publisher: Victoria & Albert Museum (March 1984)
Amazon: Oliver Messel
More Designers at my website: http://www.elisarolle.com/, My Ramblings/Art
More Real Life Romances at my website: http://www.elisarolle.com/, My Ramblings/Real Life Romance
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