The Personal Archive of the stage designer, Oliver Messel

Item author: Oliver Messel
Item date: 1904-1978
Grant Value: £5,000
Item cost: £100,000
Item date acquired: 2015
Item institution: University of Bristol, Theatre Collection
Town/City: Bristol
County: Avon

Oliver Messel (1904-1978) was an artist and one of the foremost stage designers of the 20th century. He was born into a creative family of wealthy bankers and the family home, Nymans, was a great influence throughout his life. Messel was taught to draw as a child by family friend and society portraitist Glyn Philpot and left Eton early to study at the Slade School of Fine Art, where he became friends with Rex Whistler. 

In 1925 he received his first theatrical commission, designing masks for the Diaghilev ballet, Zephyre et Flore, but it was his designs for C. B. Cochran’s Helen! in 1932 that made him instantly famous. His career as a world renowned theatre designer continued into the 1970s, whilst his reputation also flourished in film, opera, ballet, interior décor and textile design.  Messel’s versatility ensured he played an important role in national events; from war-time camouflage to spectacular decoration of the Dorchester and Royal Opera House for the Coronation.

At the core of the archive are 38 boxes of correspondence from actors and artists, theatre and film directors, society figures and royalty.  Messel was a member of the ‘Bright Young Things’ and developed friendships with many of the famous names of the day, including Cecil Beaton, Lauren Bacall, Marlene Dietrich,  John Gielgud, Katharine Hepburn, Vivien Leigh, Elizabeth Taylor and Stephen Tennant.  The Archive also contains thousands of photographs. The Archive reflects the process of making theatre and film, as well as the theatricality inherent in society life. It acts as a mirror for Britain’s wider cultural scene and evidences how Messel influenced art, architecture, fashion, media, festivities and celebrations, as well as stage and screen performances.  Since the acquisition of the Archive it has already generated a great deal of interest, including research visits from historians and international designers and a wide range of research enquiries.

Oliver Messel
Oliver Messel
A scrapbook from the Archive.
A scrapbook from the Archive. Images courtesy of University of Bristol.