Oliver Messel


Artist Biography:

Oliver Messel was Britain's most celebrated theatrical designer throughout much of the middle of the 20th century. His name was associated with the lavish costumes and beautiful sets which he created for some of the most prestigious venues in the United Kingdom. Messel was born in London on 13th January 1904 into a wealthy middle-class family. He was educated at Eton, where his contemporaries included Evelyn Waugh and Harold Acton, and subsequently at the Slade School of Fine Art. He began his career as a portrait painter, but soon began to pick up commissions for theatre work, of which one of his earliest successes came with his designs for the masks for a London production of Serge Diaghilev's ballet, Zephyr et Flore, in 1925. Friends and contemporaries of Messel at this time included Noel Coward and Cecil Beaton. During the 1940s, Messel designed the sets for numerous Hollywood films, including The Thief of Baghdad in 1940 and Suddenly, Last Summer in 1959, for which he was nominated for an Oscar. Messel also designed the costumes for many significant films, including Romeo and Juliet in 1936 and Caesar and Cleopatra in 1945. Nowadays, Oliver Messel is perhaps even better known for his interior design work. In 1953 he was commissioned to design the décor for a suite at the Dorchester Hotel in London and the remarkable baroque and rococo combination of the Oliver Messel suite is still promoted by the Dorchester today as Elizabeth Taylor's favourite venue in London. The filming of George Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra was one of Oliver Messel's most significant costume design projects. The film featured Vivien Leigh as Cleopatra, playing opposite Claude Rains. From a book on the making of the movie, Marjorie Deans described the costumes as: "authentic antique Egyptian jewellery was copied in thin wire, plastics, cellophane, bits of glass. Messel's assistant, Elinor Abbey, toiled for days and nights over the countless jewels of Cleopatra's robe, sewing them on one by one, by hand! All of the costume pieces had to be specially designed and made for the picture, and where the outcome of Messel's individual artistry." Messel retired in 1967 and moved to his vacation home in St James, Barbados, where he died in 1978.

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