English scenery and costume designer Oliver Messel (1905–78) was one of the most celebrated theatre designers of the mid-20th century. His designs for the landmark production by Sadler's Wells Ballet (later The Royal Ballet) of The Sleeping Beauty (1946) are considered his masterpiece, and were revived for the Company's 2006 production. His other designs for The Royal Ballet were Ninette de Valois' The Rake's Progress (1935) and Frederick Ashton's Homage to The Queen (1953). He was a prolific designer in theatre and opera, and for the Covent Garden Opera Company (later The Royal Opera) created designs for The Magic Flute (Malcolm Baker-Smith, 1947), The Queen of Spades (Michael Benthall, 1950) and Samson (Herbert Graf, 1958).
Messel was born in Cuckfield and studied at Eton and the Slade School of Fine Art. He began his career as a portrait painter. His first theatre commission was creating masks for Leonid Massine's Zéphire et Flore (1925) for the Ballets Russes' London performances. The following year he received his first commission from producer Charles B. Cochrane, with whom he would continue to work for a number of years. He designed his first full-length ballet in 1937, for David Lichine's Francesca da Rimini. Throughout the following decades he won renown for his opulent and imaginative sets for ballet, opera and theatre.
After World War II, his career continued in Britain and the USA, where he also designed sets for numerous Hollywood films, including The Thief of Baghdad (1940) and Suddenly, Last Summer (1959).
News and features
19 March 2014
Another chance to see the backstage films screened as part of our 2014 live cinema relay.
20 February 2014
A closer look at the designer of an iconic Sleeping Beauty.
19 February 2014
A guide to The Royal Ballet's quintessential fairytale ballet.
26 October 2009
Celebrate the 2009 revival of The Sleeping Beauty with a guided tour of the original Oliver Messel tutus in ROH Collections.