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Oliver Messel

Designer

Biography

English 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 (now 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 included 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 (now 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).

Videos

News and features

From the Archives: The Royal Ballet’s first performance of <em>The Sleeping Beauty</em> in 1946

From the Archives: The Royal Ballet’s first performance of The Sleeping Beauty in 1946

18 February 2016

The Royal Ballet's classic production is 70 years old this year.

Watch: Members of the cast and creative team on The Sleeping Beauty

Watch: Members of the cast and creative team on The Sleeping Beauty

19 March 2014

Another chance to see the backstage films screened as part of our 2014 live cinema relay.

Oliver Messel: The often unsung designer who created a landmark Royal Ballet production

Oliver Messel: The often unsung designer who created a landmark Royal Ballet production

20 February 2014

A closer look at the designer of an iconic Sleeping Beauty.

Photos

Prologue of The Sleeping Beauty (1946), Sadler's Wells Ballet (later The Royal Ballet). Photograph by Frank Sharman

Robert Helpmann as Prince Florimund and Margot Fonteyn as Princess Aurora in the Vision Scene from The Sleeping Beauty (1946), Sadler's Wells Ballet (later The Royal Ballet). Photograph by Frank Sharman

Margot Fonteyn as Princess Aurora in the Rose Adage from The Sleeping Beauty (1946), Sadler's Wells Ballet (later The Royal Ballet). Photograph by Frank Sharman

Margot Fonteyn as Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty (1946), Sadler's Wells Ballet (later The Royal Ballet). Photograph by Frank Sharman

Beryl Grey as the Lilac Fairy, Margot Fonteyn as Princess Aurora and Robert Helpmann as Prince Florimund in the Vision Scene of The Sleeping Beauty (1946), Sadler's Wells Ballet (later The Royal Ballet). Photograph by Frank Sharman

Beryl Grey as the Lilac Fairy and Robert Helpmann as Prince Florimund in The Sleeping Beauty (1946), Sadler's Wells Ballet (later The Royal Ballet). Photograph by Frank Sharman

Robert Helpmann as Carabosse in The Sleeping Beauty (1946), Sadler's Wells Ballet (later The Royal Ballet). Photograph by Frank Sharman

Richard Ellis as the Wolf and June Leighton as Red Riding Hood in The Sleeping Beauty (1946), Sadler's Wells Ballet (later The Royal Ballet). Photograph by Frank Sharman

Alexis Rassine and Violetta Prokhorova (Elvin) as the Blue Birds in The Sleeping Beauty (1946), Sadler's Wells Ballet (later The Royal Ballet). Photograph by Frank Sharman

Oliver Messel