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Oliver Messel
(1904 — 1978)

Oliver Messel was a British illustrator and theatrical designer. Born in London in 1904, Messel began his artistic education at the Slade School of Fine Art where he trained as a portrait painter. Messel briefly pursued portrait painting, before focusing his attention on commissions for theatre and set design. His first significant creations for the stage were painted masks for the production of ‘Zephyr et Flore’ for the Diaghilev Ballets Russes in around 1925. Messel’s highly stylised masks, costumes and set designs proved to be very popular and in the late 1920s and early 1930s the artist created a variety of theatrical materials to be used in C. B. Cochran revues.


During the Second World War, Messel served as a Camouflage Officer during which time he was charged with disguising military pillboxes on the Home Front. Though not as glamorous as his career in the theatre, it is said that Messel greatly enjoyed the opportunity to explore his artistic and painterly talents. Following the war, Messel’s talent for crafting stylised, almost fantastical theatrical materials encouraged the artist to enjoy great success in many areas. His work as a set and costume designer was highly regarded in the United States as well as in his native England, and the artist’s work appeared on Broadway, West End and operatic stages such as Glyndebourne in a multitude of celebrated performances throughout the 1950s until the early 1970s.


Messel was awarded the Tony Award for Best Scenic Designer in 1955 for his work on the production House of Flowers, receiving several other nominations until late in to his career. The artist frequently provided costume designs for film as well as the stage, and later served as art director and production designer for high profile projects such as Suddenly Last Summer (1959) starring Elizabeth Taylor and Katharine Hepburn, for which Messel received an Academy Award nomination. In the later stages of his life the artist relocated to the Caribbean where he enjoyed his remaining years designing and redeveloping houses in Barbados. Messel died in 1978.