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

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

By Roy Strong (Art historian, writer and broadcaster)

20 February 2014 at 4.28pm | 3 Comments

Designs by Oliver Messel for The Sleeping Beauty in 1946 remained emblazoned in my mind as the most magical vision I ever saw in the theatre during the postwar years. This was one of The Royal Ballet’s defining productions, not only in terms of concept and choreography but also in those of inspiring a masterpiece of design.

Half a century on most people will ask who was Oliver Messel and why these designs became such a landmark in the Company’s history. In his day Messel, along with his rival Cecil Beaton, were the twin stars of British theatre design. In Messel’s case he was to have a run of some thirty years from 1932 to the early 1960s when a new wave of designers, headed by Sean Kenny, rendered Messel’s world of painted cloths and gauzes obsolete. He left the country and retreated to Barbados where he designed fairytale holiday homes for the super-rich. He died in 1978.

Messel was born in 1904 into a wealthy banking family. His father, Colonel Leonard Messel, was to build Nymans in Sussex around which he laid out the famous garden, now the property of the National Trust. He was also a collector. Oliver and his sister Anne, later Countess of Rosse, were both delicate as children. Educated at home, both showed a passion for theatricals and for making things.

In the end his father decided to let Oliver go to the Slade School of Fine Art and train as a portrait painter. This was a period during which people seemed to drift into theatre design. Looking back, what Messel did, along with Beaton, was to raise the status of the profession. Both knew or set out to know everyone who was anyone in the grandest of social circles, and both lived in the grand manner. Both also belonged to the between-the-wars group we know as the Bright Young Things, partying as ferociously as they worked.

From childhood Messel had been adept with his hands and he first attracted attention when, in 1925, at the age of 21, he made masks for Diaghilev. He then caught the eye of impresario C.B. Cochran, who used him for his revues, in the main for costumes. But it was in 1932 that he suddenly shot to stardom with the designs for the Offenbach operetta La belle Hélène. That included a famous all-white bedroom scene that set off a craze in interior decoration. In the postwar years he was to dominate stage design at Glyndebourne with a series of productions whose fragile beauty ideally reflected the Arcady of their rural setting.

Messel’s work needs to be placed in context. Theatre design between the wars fell into two broad streams. One stemmed from the stylized productions of Harley Granville-Barker and was epitomized by the work of Claud Lovat Fraser. The other reflected English neo-Romanticism with its nostalgia for an aristocratic dreamworld.

Everything conspired to make Messel the ideal designer for The Sleeping Beauty. He had already worked for the company designing Robert Helpmann’s Comus during the war. The war indeed is a key to understanding the overwhelming impact of The Sleeping Beauty. After years of gloom and devastation the curtain rose on a spectacle of courtly magnificence of a kind no one had seen for years. It was a revelation.

What Messel succeeded in achieving was making what was a Russian Imperial ballet into one that could only ever belong to a visual tradition that was essentially British. It was therefore perfect for a company which, in 1946, was establishing its credentials as a great national institution. Like most productions of opera and ballet, the last word was not said on the first night. The designs, particularly of the costumes, were revised and remade over the long period during which this production remained the jewel in the Company’s crown. In this process, fabrics changed as did the actual line of some of the costumes. As always with Messel’s work, much hung on the person interpreting his wispy designs. None of his other theatrical works was to have such a compulsive hold on the public’s imagination.

This is an extract from Roy Strong's article 'Oliver Messel', which can be read in full in the red programme book, available in the theatre at performance times and from the ROH Shop.

The Sleeping Beauty runs from 22 February–9 April 2014. Tickets are still available.

Production sponsored by Coutts; generously supported by Sarah and Lloyd Dorfman, Peter Lloyd and in memory of Ellen Burkhardt; with additional philanthropic support from The Royal Opera House Endowment Fund. Original production (2006) made possible by The Linbury Trust, Sir Simon and Lady Robertson and Marina Hobson OBE.

This article has 3 comments

  1. John responded on 27 February 2014 at 7:00pm Reply

    His nightmarish designs for The Queen of Spades were a memorable asset of Covent Garden in the 50/60s.

  2. My first experience with exhilarating set & costume design. Firmed up my commitment to ballet as a dancer and as a designer.

  3. Pavlaki responded on 16 January 2017 at 2:09pm Reply

    This is a good example of the sycophantism of the Opera House, unsurprisingly written by the husband of designer, Julia Trevelyan Oman. There was, and still is, a whole world of superb theatre outside the house, which has been world leading, and none of it fell into the two narrow categories outlined above by Roy Strong. Whilst not wishing to deny Oliver Messel's talents and achievements, particularly with The Sleeping Beauty, companies such as the National Theatre, The Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal Court Theatre and the Sadlers Wells Opera, spearheaded by the likes of George Devine and Glen Byam Shaw were heralding a very different kind of production. They often worked with the design team, Motley (Margaret Harris & Sophie Harris, Elizabeth Montgomery), Jocelyn Herbert and, later, Hayden Griffin, and took a very different approach to design, which has been disseminated throughout the world, largely thanks to their school, which has always offered an alternative to the "arty" Slade school favoured by the Royal Ballet.

    Elsewhere on this website it is claimed that Oliver Messel was the greatest theatrical designer of the 20th century, which is pure hyperbole. The message we are still getting is one of class division; his theatre work was often with an elite section of British society, and RB has often used designers of a similar ilk. Fortunately, this is being gradually eroded, thanks to the likes of Wayne Mcgregor, and his use of artist/designers from the wider world.

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